Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

I had put off reading this since I acquired it..... too many pages, subject not for me and all that.  But this year I am attempting to read some books that have been hanging about for far too long, and this is one of them.  And what a surprise!

The book took me on a journey I really was not ready for, and one I had difficulty in dealing with.  As an atheist, the journey of a Baptist minister and his family was not something that appealed.  But how wrong I was to have left it on the shelf for so long.  in 1959, the minister, (without the full approval of the Baptist ministry) decides that he will minister in what was then the Belgian Congo.  He has a wife and four daughters, and so they must accompany him.  From the very first pages, when we find them readying themselves for a journey to God knows where for the purpose of baptising new Christians, we already know they are in for a difficult year ahead.  And when the small plane drops them in the middle of nowhere, and they are surrounded by natives who knew of their arrival and have killed a goat in their honour it is all so strange they recede into a kind of silent shock.  The shock really never leaves them.  The small village they have arrived at, following in the footsteps of a former missionary who has rumoured to have "gone native", is as different as it would be for you or me to land on the moon.

Food?  not much and certainly not the right sort.  Running water? none.  Bath?  Not unless you walk to the river with containers, walk them back and heat them up..... and that is only the start.  The Betty Crocker cake mixes (four of them, brought for the celebration of each birthday of the daughters) set in the pack like concrete and everything, for them, appears to be a living hell.  And Father?  Nathan Price, a cruel man with mental health problems of his own, so quick to hurt physically as well as mentally his wife and all his girls, doles out punishment for all of them whilst preaching his gospel, trusting to the translator to pass the Word on correctly.

The book is told in parts, each with a biblical heading, and divided into chapters told in  the voices of the daughters, about their lives at the time, whilst at the beginning of each part the mother looks backwards to her time in Africa.

I was shocked how little I knew about the departure of the Belgians from the Congo.  Shocked at how much the US was involved in Patrice Lamumba's death.  Stunned at how the Western world still regards Africa.  Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful author, and her research can't be beaten.   This is a book worth reading.  You can read it for the history.  You can read it for the breakup of a family.  You can read it to understand a bit more about political decisions and how they make a difference half a world away.  What it isn't is a cute story, a love story (although there is one in there), a book with a happy ending (although for some that will come).  There is horror and grief here in all kinds of ways, but it is so worth the read.