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.