The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

January 19, 2011
By elizabethlarsen121 SILVER, Iowa City, Iowa
elizabethlarsen121 SILVER, Iowa City, Iowa
7 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
A couple of hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin shared with the world the secret of his success. Never leave that till tomorrow, he said, which you can do today. This is the man who discovered electricity. You think more people would listen to what he had to say. I don't know why we put things off, but if I had to guess, I'd have to say it has a lot to do with fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, sometimes the fear is just of making a decision, because what if you're wrong? What if you're making a mistake you can't undo? The early bird catches the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. He who hesitates is lost. We can't pretend we hadn't been told. We've all heard the proverbs, heard the philosophers, heard our grandparents warning us about wasted time, heard the damn poets urging us to seize the day. Still sometimes we have to see for ourselves. We have to make our own mistakes. We have to learn our own lessons. We have to sweep today's possibility under tomorrow's rug until we can't anymore. Until we finally understand for ourselves what Benjamin Franklin really meant. That knowing is better than wondering, that waking is better than sleeping, and even the biggest failure, even the worst, beat the hell out of never trying.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a typical American family, the Prices. The Price family travels to the Belgian Congo in 1959 when the father, Nathan, decides that they must go there to do Christian missionary work. This novel alternates viewpoints between the mother and each of the children- Rachel, twins, Leah and Adah, and Ruth May. The book revolves around the family’s struggles in the Congo that they encounter while attempting to complete their father’s dream of a Christian Congo. The book continues to follow the children once they leave the Congo and long after. By writing about the children’s adult lives, Kingsolver shows readers what lessons they learned in Africa and how their time in Africa shaped their lives forever.

The Poisonwood Bible shows the immense cultural differences between America and the Congo. It also reveals the harmful effects of imposing ones’ culture on another country. The book models this using many examples. For instance, when the Prices first enter into Kilanga, Nathan has a sincere desire to baptize all of the Congolese children. Every mass he tells the congregation that he wants them to take their kids to the river so the he may baptize them. Little does he know that their reluctance is not because of their refusal to accept Christianity, but rather the fact that a child had recently been eaten by a crocodile in the river. Another example of the vast differences between the two cultures is shown when the village is struck with a plague of driver ants. The villagers are forced to flee leaving the ants, thousands upon thousands of them, to pass through the village devouring everything in sight. The ants leave nothing untouched. Everything left behind by the villagers, whether food, animals, or children, is eaten completely, leaving nothing but marrowless bones. The villagers of the Congo appreciate the ants as they clean every inch of the town. All crumbs, mold, and bugs are eaten, leaving a spectacularly clean village behind. I don’t think that many Americans would show the same appreciation for these skin biting ants that eat everything in sight. These are just two of the many examples that show the immeasurable cultural differences.

This book really motivated me to reconsider many of my preconceived ideas of various aspects of American culture. It put a new spin on many of the customs and ideas that Americans accept without question. For example, in the middle of the book, the cities of the Belgian Congo hold an election to decide on a leader to govern the soon to be free Congo. Bowls are set out in every city and citizens were instructed to place a pebble in the bowl of the leader that they wished to be elected. The man with the most pebbles in his bowl would be appointed the leader, or in other words, majority would rule. This “democratic” election, which is the accepted way of elections in America, was a new concept to the Congolese. As the Chief of Kilanga explained to the Prices, if, for example, five citizens voted for one man and 4 others voted for another man, the 1st man would win in a democracy. This, he claimed, would not work because, clearly, the four men who did not vote for the winner would not be happy with the results. He could not understand why the developed countries thought that this was so brilliant when almost half of the voters could end up unsatisfied with the outcome. In Congo, the accepted method to vote is to have a council of wise elders talk, debate, and compromise until an acceptable solution for all is reached. This man’s theories made me reevaluate the government that most American citizens never think twice about.

This book left me with the impression that Africans are never able to fully trust a white person or treat them as their own. Kingsolver repeatedly shows how Leah, now living in the Congo, is always scowled at and given mistrusting looks primarily due to the color of her skin. Kingsolver does not merely show that Africans are wary of whites, but offers an explanation. The book often conveys that the citizens of Africa can never forgive and be completely open to whites because of the hardships and dominance that the Americans and Belgians show to Africa. In this way, the book does not offer much hope about the relationship between Africa and America, but instead goes as far as saying that they are two worlds and never shall they intertwine.

I think that Barbara Kingsolver set out to write this book hoping to show many things to the readers. I think that she wished to open American’s minds to the other cultures out there. I think this book was meant to be read by adults in developed countries for hopes that they might appreciate the unique and different ways that Africans lead their everyday lives. Even though adults may be the target audience, I think that this book has many lessons to share with all.

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