The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It's everyone's, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.



Like the last book I discussed here, I was late picking up Kingsolver’s epic tale. It’s a novel I’ve known about for many years. When I was a freshman in high school, my Modern World Studies teacher offered extra credit to anyone who could read the novel and complete a poster board project on the Congo, where the novel takes place. I toted the heavy book around in my backpack for two weeks, tattering its edges but never even opening its cover. It was an intimidating book, sure. The story, told by five different narrators, in seven different sections, spans three decades. But I’m not sure its vastness is what kept me from opening the book that year, or the years to follow, either.

Some background for you…Again, The Poisonwood Bible is set in Central Africa—the Belgian Congo, the tiny village of Kilanga, 1959. Nathan Price, a hot-tongued Southern Baptist preacher, has just uprooted his family of five women from their comfortable, Betty-Crocker home in Georgia to the middle of the African jungle for his evangelical mission. Each woman in the novel (wife—Orleanna, and daughters—Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) tells their own story as it’s happening in voices that are strong, distinct and lovable. Each narrator offers a unique piece of the Price family puzzle with her own questions, answers and observations. I could go on for hours about Kingsolver’s masterful writing here. What she achieved with these characters and their voices is remarkable. It’s what keeps you turning the pages, 543 times.

At school, I always challenge my students to answer the question: What is this book really about? I try to teach them that there are many layers to a book, a story, an article, any piece of writing, really. On the outside we have structure, characters, setting—all the scaffolding it takes to hold up a good narrative. But to find that takeaway message and to decide what a story means to us, as readers, we have to look more closely. To me, The Poisonwood Bible boils down to the quote I highlighted above. It’s about looking at the foundations upon which we build our lives. It’s about our relationships with our siblings, our parents, our husbands, wives and children, however complex or artificial they might be. It’s about the difference between illusion and misunderstanding and truth, if there is one, and if in the long run, that difference really matters.

This book would not have been an easy read at fourteen and it was not exactly an easy read at twenty-three. But there's something about the hard books that make them the ones we're most proud of. They're the ones from which we truly learn something, whether or not we realize it right away. What I'm finding, with this book and with others, is that regardless of what we do, books always seem to have the perfect timing.