As I have been watching the news unfold over the last few months, I have been reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which is a novel that I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since I read it. It seems that every week or two has brought a new story of black men being killed by police officers under questionable circumstances. Over and over again we’re hearing a narrative that we’ve long known to be true — that to be a young black man in this country is a particularly dangerous business.
The unfair treatment of black men by police has been a social problem that I have known about my entire life. Likewise, the main subject of The Poisonwood Bible — the disastrous effect of colonialism in Africa — is another narrative that we’ve all heard over and over. As with our national narrative, we have heard the problem described so many times that any real change seems like a hopeless dream. Kingsolver, in writing a novel about the Congolese, has contributed in the way that writers do — she’s written a compelling story to give human faces and names to big social problems. She gives us the who and also the why, taking the abstract ideas of colonization, unimaginable poverty and political corruption and turned it into a story about these specific people in the Congo. She shows us faces and makes us care about her characters, while forcing us to examine the ideas we were taught about Africa as schoolchildren.
Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.
When the Prices arrive in the poor village of Kilaga, they are immediately thrown into culture shock. When they emerge from the plane from Georgia, Leah tells us that:
We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees. We’d left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on. In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.
The material sacrifices that the Prices have made to move to the Congo pale in comparison with their neighbors. When the Prices packed to leave, they were flummoxed by the weight limit of what they were allowed to bring on the plane, trying to fit all of the clothes and tools that they’ll need for the year into fifty-four pounds of luggage and whatever they can wear. The Congolese, on the other hand, have so little that the elderly of the village watch a hair dressing party
working their gums, dressed in clothes exactly the same color as their skin, from all the many ground-in years of wash and wear. From a distance you can’t tell they have anything on at all, but just the faintest shadow of snow-white hair as if Jack Frost lightly touched down on their heads. They look as old as the world. Any colorful thing they might hold in their hands, like a plastic bucket, stands out strangely.
It quickly becomes clear that the native Congolese were given a deck of playing cards with all the diamonds stolen, while the Europeans are given another, more complete, set. When the Belgians release their hold on the Congo, the Europeans and Americans that the Prices have met flee, with as much of their stolen wealth as they can carry out.
And yet, while the economic situation of the Congolese could easily make the novel relentless in its depictions of the harm the Europeans and Americans have done, Kingsolver makes the political personal by involving us in the familial struggles of the Price family. Burdened with a mean and authoritarian father, whose religious zealotry isolates him from everyone around him, the Price girls must navigate their childhood carefully. It is a complex family relationship, where the girls compete against one another to try and find their father’s love, while also learning to survive in a foreign world. When Kingsolver stages the trials of adolescence against the missionary background and combines it with dysfunctional family dynamics, she creates a page-turning narrative that lingers with the reader for a long time after the final page is turned. Leah tells us that
our whole family was at odds, it seemed: Mother against Father, Rachel against both of them, Adah against the world, Ruth May pulling helplessly at anyone who came near, and me trying my best to stay on Father’s side. We were tangled in such knots of resentment we hardly understood them.
Kingsolver writes powerfully and beautifully, bringing difficult social and family issues to life through her narration. We get a sense of the beauty and promise of the Congolese, while not descending into a simplistic portrait of good versus bad, black versus white. Through their burgeoning relationships with their neighbors, the Price children discover beauty and absurdity within the world around them and within their own family. What at first seems bizarre and strange becomes comprehensible and natural as they learn the social context around the unfamiliar behavior of the Congolese. As their year in the Congo extends, it is American norms that begin to seem strange. When Patrice Lumumba comes to power, Leah Price stands in the crowd and dreams as a Congolese.
Nothing will take away the suffering of the thousands of black men that have wrongly become victims to the prejudice of our penal and legal system. Likewise, we can’t undo the actions of our government that have contributed to the political instability of the Congo. In both cases, we see the same theme — a status quo that works hard to keep itself, at the cost of fairness and justice.
Kingsolver, writing in 1998, asks a very similar question in The Poisonwood Bible to the questions we see being asked today about our legal system. Will there ever be justice for the crimes committed by the Europeans and the Americans in the Congo? Can corruption be removed when it comes from the top? Can we escape the ideas of our past to create a fair tomorrow?
With over half of its wealth still being exported, continuing civil war and record-setting levels of poverty among its people, it seems that the majority of the Congolese are still waiting to find out.
More on the Congo:
- Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
- Publish Date: July 5, 2005
- Hardcover: 546 pages
- ISBN: 0060786507
- Language: English
- Rating: 5 of 5 stars