Book Response — “The Poisonwood Bible”

Pantheism of

The Poisonwood Bible

published by HarperCollins, New York, 1998

It is through art — literature, sculpture, painting, photography, theatre — that a culture survives.  And, it is through art that the truth of a culture can be seen.  In “The Poisonwood Bible“, Barbara Kingsolver tells a stark, honest story of European conquerors of the African Congo from the Reverend Price family’s arrival in 1959.

Shock.  Shame.  I was often shocked in history class:  grade 10 “Apartheid” South Africa — What do you mean they have separate washrooms?  Still?  That’s unbelievable!; 2nd yr UVic “Medieval” Europe —  The Christians killed anyone & destroyed anything that honoured nature?  That’s atrocious!  Then, inevitably, I felt ashamed:  I am from pure United Kingdom stock, with a grandparent from each corner of the British Realm — Scotland, Ireland, England & Wales — it was my arrogant ancestors who, continent after continent, forced their [erroneous] religion & culture on aboriginal cultures that were much more “in tune” with God’s wonderful world of nature.  I connect with Leah when she “felt a stirring of anger against my father for making me a white preacher’s child”. (115)

Kingsolver pushes us early in her bible — in Genesis — to explore the connection between respect of nature & respect of other humans.  After setting the scene of her brief moment with the elusive okapi, Orleanna asks us to imagine the Congo if white men had not conquered it — “What would that Africa be now? . . . A unicorn that could look you in the eye.” (8) This was my naive dream when I was younger — that humans help the world return to its original glory.  Early colour television shows often showcased nature — I grew up with favourites like the sensitive “Lassie“, “Flipper” the smart, almost talking, dolphin, & the Canadian classic “The Littlest Hobo” with the kindest crime-busting dog ever.  I became more socially aware with shows like “Daktari” highlighting Kenya’s depletion of elephant tusks, gorillas, leopards & tigers, and films like “Silent Running” in which the world’s last living forest — now cared for in a space bubble orbiting earth — is ordered released to die in space due to lack of funding.  It seemed there were enough people who could care about nature.  It seemed there might be a chance to glimpse that unicorn but IT SEEMS TOO LATE NOW.

And Orleanna agrees:  before taking us through the bloody history of this ignorant family of Congo conquerors, she tells us there is “only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?” (9) Kingsolver then lays out her story from the Price family perspective, purposely keeping the male voice quiet so the all-female voices can represent a non-gender-specific humanism.  Allegorically portraying European conquerors throughout history, Reverend Price’s arrogant word is heard & his ignorant actions damage — his illogical excuses are not required.

Orleanna herself uses two different voices, starting (& ending) the novel as if an eagle, viewing her family picnic from high above — then quickly switching to the first person, indicating the short breath of a moment in time it all was.  Now her voice drips with guilt.  One would think I would identify strongly with Orleanna, as a middle-aged woman reviewing the lives of her children, but it is in Leah & Adah, the twin & the “niwt”, that I see myself.  They fell in love with the paradise of African nature & the culture of the Congolese — each discarded the hard beliefs of their father in favour of the more realistic, “simple” understanding of the Congo. In Kingsolver’s chapter entitled “The Revelation“, Leah’s voice matures as she ponders the complicated rift between her father’s religion & the Congolese practice of polygamy (102-3) and realizes that even the green & white sweater a male neighbour, Tata Boanda, wears in cool weather is different:  “So is it even a lady’s sweater, here in the Congo?  I wonder.” (102)  Adah learns the simple truth from Nelson:

“All that is being here, ntu,” says Nelson with a shrug, as if this is not so difficult to understand.  . . . the principles of ntu are asleep, until they are touched by nommoNommo is the force that makes things live as what they are:  man or tree or animal.  . . . this helped explain a mystery for me.  My sister and I are identical twins, so how is it that from one single seed we have two such different lives?  Now I know.  Because I am named Adah and she is named Leah.  (209)

Pantheism or Racism?
The word pantheism comes from the Greek pan=all & theos=God forming the philosophy that “God is all, and all is God” — after years of trying to fit into a “religion”, I determined this is where I belong.  This is not the angry God of the Christian bible & our salvation is here, not in heaven.  This is Eden & we are its’ stewards — now.  After that, it’s all so simple — to be a deity encourages honour & respect, thus we must respect all nommo:  “man or tree or animal”. (209)

Kingsolver’s story of the Congo is just one example from throughout human’s existence of the disrespect my European culture hammered onto other nommo.  J.M. Coetzee is another author who writes stark, honest stories of the European conquerors arrogant arrival in Africa — the Dutch who started apartheid in South Africa.  In The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, the horror comes alive.  In one chapter, describing a revenge massacre in 1761-2, Coetzee succinctly portrays the European supremist’s thoughts with phrases such as:  describing the African Tamboers being “nonentities swept away on the tide of history” (Coetzee, 101); total inhumanity when he “wipe[s] the village off the face of the earth, do what is fitting with the Hottentots.  Screaming began.” (Coetzee, 102); and indeed, the killer’s pleasure, “I had nourished myself on this day”. (Coetzee, 101)

I could never understand why Europeans thought they were better than other cultures.  With a more open mind, they would have discovered so much more from other cultures, and I believe our world would be in a better state today if we had learned to live closer with nature — to respect all nommo of the world & enjoy the vast differences between cultures, not blindly destroy before we understand.  Like Leah & Adah, I have followed a different route than my parents:  Leah married the political activist, Anatole, & bore his children (519) — I married the son of an African American father & a Saskatchewan Metis mother & bore my “United Nations” sons;  Adah dedicates her life “to discover the life histories of viruses” (530) in nature — I’ve dedicated my life to understanding, respecting & portraying the wonderful nature of western Canada.

I look at my four [three for me] boys, who are the colors of silt, loam, dust, and clay, an infinite palette for children of their own, and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether. (Leah — 526)

The deadly poisonwood tree is a “tree that bites”, as Mama Tataba tries to tell Rev. Nathan Price (39), much like the good minister uses the words of the Christian Holy Bible to bite.  While the more open-minded Leah discovers the secret of the “Bängala” tree (112), Nathan never discovers the irony of his referring to the Congolese “Bängala” deity using the wrong sing-songy voice — his God is poison.


Please note:  Some of you grammar experts might notice that I [erroneously] place the period outside the quotation marks when it logically belongs there — this is my little “mark” against illogical bureaucratic rules!

Works Cited

Kingsolver, Barbara.  The Poisonwood Bible.  New York; HarperCollins: 1998.

Coetzee, J.M.  Dusklands, The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee. New York; Penguin: 1982.

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