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Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

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I read The Poisonwood Bible some years ago, and it left me with an uneasy sense that something is not right in this novel. It was probably the author’s comparison of Jesus to poisonwood – a noxious plant in Africa similar to poison ivy that causes severe irritation to anyone who comes in contact with it.

Author Barbara Kingsolver’s criticism of Christianity is seen in statements such as, “Priests held mass baptisms on the shore and marched their converts onto ships bound for sugar plantations in Brazil, slaves to the higher god of commodity agriculture,” and “Poor Congo, beautiful bride of men who took her jewels and promised her the kingdom.” This is pretty harsh treatment of Jesus and Christianity!

The story of the Christian missionary, Nathan Price, his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters amplifies what Kingsolver thinks is poisonous in Christianity. She portrays Nathan as a total failure. He is a failure as a husband, a failure as a father, and a failure as a missionary. He accomplishes nothing of value. He is a fictional character created by Kingsolver, and he is 100 percent what Kingsolver wants him to be. That’s all right. A novelist is entitled to create fiction, but I wonder why Kingsolver portrays this Christian missionary this way.

Kingsolver patterns her book after Scripture. The book is divided into seven main divisions, entitled “Genesis,” “Revelation,” “The Judges,” “Bel and the Serpents,” “Song of Three Children,” and “The Eyes in the Trees.” The eyes in the trees make one think of the serpent in the tree in the Garden of Eden. The comparison of The Poisonwood Bible to The Holy Bible is evident. Kingsolver very effectively begins and ends her story viewed through the eyes of the mamba snake as though they were the reader’s eyes viewing the characters.

The historical setting of The Poisonwood Bible is the Belgium Congo of the 1960’s. Kingsolver states that the events in the characters’ lives are fiction, but the historical backdrop is real. She describes many historical events that occurred at that place and time, and has her characters draw conclusions from those events.

She presents a harsh picture of American involvement in the political affairs of the Congo, of the West’s exploitation of the Congo, and the non-relevance of Christianity for the Congolese people. Here again, I thought she was too harsh. To be fair, no one can extract, in a few thousand words, an accurate and objective appraisal of what happened at that time. The author’s personal understanding will always slant the appraisal.

To satisfy my curiosity, I took the trouble to surf the Internet and read history books and biographies of the historical characters so I could compare historical facts to what is portrayed in Kingsolver’s book. I easily saw that she did not portray the real world honestly and fairly. She emphasized some facts and omitted other, very important ones. In doing this, she has presented a distorted worldview that, coupled with her pathetic characterization of the Christian missionary Nathan Price, makes me wonder what point she was trying to get across to the reader.

Kingsolver has her characters criticize the West, particularly the United States, for trying to intervene when the Congo became independent in 1960 and Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister. She has one of her characters seeing newspaper headlines of “Soviet plan moves forward in Congo” and “Khrushchev wanted to take over the Belgian Congo.” One of her characters hears that Eisenhower had ordered Lumumba’s death. Another hears that Secretary of State Dulles sent a telegram, “…to replace the Congolese government at earliest convenience.”

Kingsolver’s readers would rightly wonder why the United States became so involved in the internal affairs of the Congo. Kingsolver even has a character mention that Lumumba asked Khrushchev to come to the Congo’s aid, but the character felt that Lumumba was bluffing. What most readers won’t remember, and Kingsolver did not mention it, is that in 1959, Khrushchev brought Castro’s Cuba into the Soviet circle.

All Americans should remember the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960’s because it was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. I do not condone what the United States did in the Congo, but knowing about Cuba, I can realize the seriousness of Lumumba’s bluff and the panic of the United States State Department trying to prevent a Soviet foothold in Central Africa.

I’m not trying to defend United States foreign policy, but just to be informed of the real facts, I read a biography of Patrice Lumumba written by his personal friend, Thomas Kanza – The Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba: Conflict in the Congo. In it, Kanza quotes verbatim Lumumba’s request for aid to Khrushchev and states his opinion that his friend “Lumumba was involved in a dangerous, perhaps mortal, struggle; for though the West wanted to save the Congo, it had had enough of (Lumumba).”

Kingsolver states the Congo was exploited for gold, diamonds, copper, ivory, and slaves. She didn’t mention uranium, but Kanza did. Uranium, being of strategic importance in the cold war, still doesn’t excuse the West, but mention of it would make the West’s panic more understandable.

Kingsolver states, “People (of the Congo) are angry at the Europeans. They are even hurting (Western) women and little children.” She then criticizes Belgium for sending troops back into the Congo. Kanza quotes from a UN speech concerning Belgium’s intervention, claiming, “white women raped before their children’s eyes, little white girls raped.”

In another book, I read that this violence was directed against the families of white officers in the Congolese army. Lumumba did not condone it, but he was unable to stop it. Two website articles about Mobutu Sese Seko state that Belgium sent troops to protect Belgium citizens from the violence. Kingsolver’s understatement of the degree of violence makes her readers think Belgium had other motives for sending troops. Her omission of pertinent details slants her reader’s opinions.

Kingsolver’s statements, coupled with the ineptitude of Nathan Price set against the backdrop of partially described history, serves to make the point that the white man’s mistreatment of blacks is more that racial: it is white men poisoned with Christian ideology that inspired them to do what they do in nonwhite countries. As mentioned earlier, Kingsolver sums it up when she has Leah Price say, “Jesus is poisonwood. Here’s to the minister of poisonwood (her father), and here’s to his five wives (herself, her mother, and her three sisters).”

Kingsolver states her main view of life near the end of her book as, “This is the story I believe in: when God was a child, the Rift Valley cradled a caldron of bare necessities, and out of it walked the first humans, upright on two legs…They made the Voodoo, the Earth’s oldest religion.”

I do not accept any of this. God was never a child. God is unchanging. Human beings did not originate out of a cauldron of bare necessities in the Rift Valley. God created the first humans. Voodoo is not the Earth’s oldest religion. The relationship the first humans had with God is the world’s oldest religion.

This is what bothered me about The Poisonwood Bible.

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About Maurice A. Williams

Williams has written many scientific journal articles and book chapters, and now writes inspirational articles, poems, book reviews, and has written three commentaries on Revelation. Williams has four children and six grandchildren who bring him great pride and joy.
  • Probably it’s easier to read a novel as just fiction and don’t compare it to the real world.

  • william hart

    your critique of this book is right on! my son had to read this book in a high school english class, and i resented the bias and the imbalance in the class where no real criticism of the book was allowed.
    there is great literature to be discussed, but not in the english classes of america-mind numbed zombies only, please.

  • starchild

    Do you know what happened in the Congo under Belgian rule? Kingsolver lived in Africa with her missionary parents. She knows. Do you blame Africans for not trusting the white man’s god, considering it was the white men who came in, raped their land of all resources, forced them to enter into nothing better than slavery, separated families, and mutilated many people of the region?
    Just so you know, I am white and I am educated also.

  • Midnight Ryder

    I agree with much of what you are saying. It does seem markedly anti-Christian. However, the character’s name is NATHAN Price, not Nelson. 😉

  • Dawn

    While the novel certainly has strong anti Christian sentiments I would argue that its main point is against Christian Colonialism and the arrogance that fuels it. Not so much the religion itself but its forced acceptance upon those who already have steadfast beliefs.

  • Mike

    I also think the book is very much anti-men. While I am enjoying reading the book, it disturbs me on many levels; as a man, and a Catholic, I am particularly disturbed by the malevolent Christianity it portrays (we aren’t all Nathan Prices), and by the very negative image it portrays of the male characters in the book, with a few exceptions.

    In short more feminist anti-Christian tripe, just what the world needs…

  • Pat

    Excellent book and I would recommend it to all. Review and comments (above) I guess to be from fundamentalist types – women should be under men and all that.

  • zoe

    First of all, the character’s name is Nathan Price! anddd it took place in Belgian not Belgium, Congo!!!!
    I also don’t believe Kingsolver was criticizing christianity or negative towards it in any way, it is a work of fiction.

  • Jr

    Personally, I thought the portrayal of Nathan to be beautifully done. While he has many flaws, the author shows the reader his background and where he came from; in the end, while I was disapproving of his behavior, I was also completely understanding of it. I felt pity more than resentment for him.

    And based on your last comment, I have a feeling that you didn’t catch a few of the themes within the book. The Rift Vally, of course, refers to the early cradles of human civilization (such as the Nile River floodplains). Humans, in early societies, built upon a shaky foundation to reach the collective point that we’re at today. The part you quote, I believe, is a metaphor for the humankind’s “juvenile” nature, as it had to evolve and adapt within its social boundaries, and society eventually matured and advanced as a result of this constant mutation of human interests. “Voodoo” referred to the earliest notions of religion and of attempting to understand the world, providing the roots for all of religion that we have today (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, everything). I think the author tried to connect the human element with the spiritual element of religion, claiming that we are all of the same, just trying to look at the world through our own perspectives.

    And at the previous comments: I think that some of you were rather stung at the portrayal of Nathan 🙂 I don’t believe that the author was trying to criticize ALL aspects of Christianity. Indeed, within her story were compassionate Christian followers who were sympathetic to the Africans’ viewpoints. What she criticizes is the ethnocentric view that is embodied in the attempt at complete, uncompromising conversion, AKA the path of Nathan. The author wants us to embrace all viewpoints, and to treat each other equally. Unfortunately, much of Christian history is marked by intolerance and pain (but as society advances, I remain idealistic and believe that Christianity grows towards tolerance and compassion day by day!).

  • Jason

    “Human beings did not originate out of a cauldron of bare necessities in the Rift Valley. God created the first humans. Voodoo is not the Earth’s oldest religion. The relationship the first humans had with God is the world’s oldest religion.”

    Nope. The Great Rift Valley is one of the original cradles of civilization in human history. And the first stabs at religion did not even involve a human-like figure, as embodied in many current religions. They had more to do with events in nature, akin to Animism.

  • SLC

    The problem with this book is that people like Nathan would never exist. No person (nevermind a missionary) would claim to be a Christian yet be so selfish and unloving. Kingsolver just makes Nathan to be that way in order to undermine the truth of Christianity and the Bible.

  • ZK

    umm .. u’re wrong.. it’s not nelson price, it’s NATHAN price!!

  • davidedwards

    I think blogcritics needs to make sure the critics actually read the book. This book has very little to do with Nathan, he is a very minor character, and an antagonist. Kingsolver is NOT displaying her thoughts on Christianity through Nathan. The book is about 5 women and their views on faith. The main character, Leah, comes to love all of God’s creation, despite her father’s hypocritical and rancorous doctrine. I am disappointed that people are reading this book in such a shallow way, as the poisonwood bible helped me define my faith.

  • LB

    i agree with davidewards. the book was all about following brother fowles’ and leah’s doctrine, wich were all about loving oneself and others and the world God has made for us. nathan price is just the bad guy. plus the political stuff wasnt as biased as everyone is making it sound. it was just background info. the important stuff was in the village

  • laurasalles

    omg this review pissed me off so much! its not a critcism of christianity its a commentary on the power of faith.

  • Lilka

    I wouldn’t expect a review written by Nathan Price himself to be positive. If you haven’t met any fundamentalist Christians who resemble Nathan Price then prehaps switch on your television and watch your televangelists, or just to your local church, I’m sure you’ll find lots of them their (unless you can’t recoignise them, by virtue of being one yourself).

  • Lynn

    Thoughtful comments appreciated. Book reviews reflect the reviewers point of view as much as books reflect the author’s. “There are Christians, and there are christians”. Ms. Kingsglover sadly has painted them, white people, western wealth all with the same brush. Her story was captivating, so well written, I couldn’t put it down, yet for me, a little too much of the author’s worldview.

  • barb wilbur

    I agree, Christianity never appears in a positive light. Very little faith.

  • the shadow knows

    i agree with davidewards. the book was all about following brother fowles’ and leah’s doctrine, wich were all about loving oneself and others and the world God has made for us. nathan price is just the bad guy. plus the political stuff wasnt as biased as everyone is making it sound. it was just background info. the important stuff was in the village

    you are so wrong. Imagine it was criticizing secularists you people would have a fit. deal with it.

  • Kelcie T.

    If you go and read an interview with the author, you would see that Kingsolver used this novel to portray her political views, not her views on Christianity. Nathan was used as a political allegory, not as a representation of Christianity as a whole. Although I do believe that the novel is biased, it’s fiction. What do you expect? She created a story worth reading, and what you get out of it is strictly up to you.

  • Sue

    I appreciate reading these comments and the review. I was not very far into the book when I felt there would not be enough in it worthy of my time. I know it is fiction, but not my kind of fiction!

  • Cathy z

    Having just finished listening to Kingsolver’s book I had to find what others have said about it because I too was quite bothered by it. I totally agree with your assessment. I was glad to learn that her history is slanted. I believe that if this is a reflection of Kingslover’s personal faith it is much misguided, not Christian and not of much worth.

    • Cory Heinsen

      Christ was critical of some aspects of Judaism, the religion He was raised in, where he saw that it had diverged from the spirit of God and gotten lost in an idolatry of words and laws applied without spiritual discrimination (ie the stoning of women suspected of adultery). It is the duty of every Christian to imitate Him in this, and eschew fundamentalism.

  • Cadis Palmer

    This last year, for grad school, I conducted both primary and secondary source research on colonialism in the Belgian Congo beginning in the 1800’s, with well documented missionary involvement in the fight against colonialism and abuse of the people. “Poisonwood Bible” is completely fictional and does not even attempt to portray documented historical events accurately. It’s a shame it became so popular. Historical fiction authors should at least put forth a little bit of effort to get their facts straight.

    • Cory Heinsen

      To be fair to Kingsolver, she does have the other missionary couple in the story, the Underwoods, save one of the African characters from colonialist exploitation. In some ways they are a foil to the blind arrogance of Nathan.