I’m not sure if this book just wasn’t meant for me or if it was perhaps because I took such a long break from this book (almost 6 months! yikes!), but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I was expecting. I’ve read three of Kingsolver’s books now, and I found I very much enjoyed The Bean Trees years ago, enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle when I listened to it last year on audio, but this one was rather disappointing. After hearing so much from friends and acquaintances about how they loved this book, I’m not sure why it didn’t land for me. If you loved this book, please tell me why!
The Poisonwood Bible covers the story of Nathaniel Price, his wife Orleanna, and his four daughters, Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. However, the book is not told from Nathan’s perspective at all, but rather primarily through the four girls and retrospectively through Orleanna. The structure was my favorite element of this book. Kingsolver gave beautifully unique voices to each of the five narrators, and their Southern-ness shows through appropriately. The six travel to Belgian Congo in 1959 and begin their jobs as missionaries for the people who live in their small town. They bring all the knowledge of where they’re from, and feel powerful in disseminating it’s wisdom, but they quickly learn that the principles and skills they knew in the South do not work the same in the Congo.
Ruth May, as a young child, doesn’t understand everything in the same way the older kids do, and she’s far more interested in playing and exploring than she is in making sense of her place in the world. Her reality is very different, but so are the realities of the other members of the Price family. Adah and Leah are twins, but so drastically different from one another that it’s hard to imagine them as twins. Adah has struggled for much of her life, growing up as second to Leah, having given up some of her power to Leah in the womb. Adah is physically crippled, but mentally very strong and inquisitive. She spends much of her time silent and thinking very hard about everything around her. Leah spends most of her time physically active, exploring their new world in Congo, learning what the boys do there, and getting to know her community. And Rachel is obsessed with feminine teenage ideals, becoming a woman of the early 60s. She wants a husband, and she wants to be as far away from Congo as possible.
The four girls learn that they must grow to understand and respect the communities that are already established in Congo if they are to survive. However, Nathan continues blindly on in his quest to bring civility to the Congolese people. It’s a pretty fascinating approach to the story, and I appreciate that the moral is not in fact to change what exists, but to learn and assimilate as much as possible. I like that Kingsolver showed what different options looked like for each of the family members as their worlds fell apart, and none of them picked the “right” path. There was a lot more gray area to this story because there is not one right or wrong answer in life. I liked that she showed so clearly how different all of their realities were, and how their understanding of the world around them shaped the path they would take.
So while I didn’t fall in love with this book, there was definitely a lot going on here. The delivery enhanced the experience of reading this book, and I felt the length was appropriate for providing the attention to detail and such drastically different characters.