My two cents on a long overdue reading of The Poisonwood Bible.
The book I read before Poisonwood was Jitterbug Perfume. Needless to say, it was a little odd making that transition. In the beginning (ha), I had my doubts about how much I’d like it because I thought that the first chapter narrated by the wife of the psycho preacher was maybe a little too dramatic for my taste. Of course, just about anything is dramatic after you’ve just been on this romp about genius waitresses experimenting with jasmine essence and a smelly flute-playing goat with Tom Robbins. As it turned out, Poisonwood deserved all the ceremony within and around it, and now I feel a little silly for doubting it in the first place.
But enough about my idiosyncrasies. Poisonwood was simply enchanting and, at the same time, an extremely mature novel. Reading it made me feel small. Stripped of a white, male, capitalist outlook, we see the earth as a cruel beauty (if you’ll excuse the gendered metaphor) who owes us nothing and gives us everything. And we see how dangerous it is when one group imposes its beliefs and ways of life on another while simultaneously exploiting that other group. This is a gross understatement, but it’s also one of the main themes of the novel.
I myself went to a Christian school from middle school to high school, so I know what’s up in that department. I have read the New Testament several times. I also hung out with a lot of Christians in college. I used to hand out leaflets to random people walking around campus. Leaflets! I was a different person back then. It isn’t even that I’m not monotheistic anymore… I just can’t see myself standing around, handing out leaflets.
I related to Leah the most. I was right there with her when she was a stubborn tomboy with an ardent faith in Jesus, eager to learn about the world and love people in any way she could. I also got it when she, quite understandably, turned away from religion after getting a taste of what life really is while nearly getting eaten alive by ants in the Congo. Yet, one never really forgets, as Kingsolver won’t have us forget. She would still pray at times throughout her life, just not in the same way. That’s just how it is. I can act all self-reliant and cosmopolitan one moment, and then, when something bad happens, there I am down on my knees. Doubt, fear, and guilt: it’s something that most Christians don’t want to talk about.
I was disappointed in Rachel’s character. There were moments where I thought that she was finally going to grow up, but in a way, she never did. Something about that part of the novel bothered me. As I saw Rachel arguing with her sisters about politics, reciting trashy propaganda while they confronted her with facts and rationality, I felt like I was watching a sitcom. I think I understand what Kingsolver was trying to convey about Western creature comfort tunnel vision, but I can’t help but resent the continual portrayal of the unintelligent as bigoted cyclopses. I understand that such people exist (many of them), but I feel that the binary opposition of good-smart, bad-dumb is itself elitist and self-indulgent. In other words, I wouldn’t equate the hard heart with the dull mind. The former being far, far scarier than the latter.
Overall, I found this to be a satisfying and edifying read.