Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Poisonwood Bible

We had a rollicking discussion today because, as Cheryl noted, everyone came very well prepared to discuss this complex and difficult book.

Mary asked an interesting question - how many of us read it for the first time and how many reread it? Those who reread it said they enjoyed it more the second time because the first time they were reading for the story and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Several of us said that we didn't actually get to the point of liking the book until over half way. Kathy said she didn't like it at all until the part about the ants and asked how many had actually liked the book in the end. All of us. I can tell you I would never have finished it, were it not for book group. I also know that I will reread it.

We did think that Methuselah was Nathan - a parrot. Kingsolver never gave Nathan his own voice yet he marked everything, even as a parrot. He and Africa absolutely shaped the lives of the Price women. They never left Africa and Africa never left them - I forget who made that point.

In reading it this time, Mary said she felt that each of the characters embodied a characteristic of Africa, and I wish I would have written them down because we agreed with her. We enjoyed the humorous and superficial Rachael who surprised us by creating and running a business. She was a survivor, seeing opportunity in Alexrod whom she was married to "in the Biblical sense." She considered herself a survivor, saying if she were in a burning theater, she'd wedge herself into the crowd, pick up her feet and let them carry her out so she wouldn't get trampled. And how she could turn a phrase - like "feminine tuition" and "I prefer to remain anomalous."

The huge frustration of the book is Nathan's insane inability to care for anything, especially his family, and Orleanna's inability to stand against him and for her girls who are left defenseless and hungry. We talked a little about Kingsolver's choice of four blond children to deliver the message of Africa's hopelessness and if it were so that we'd be forced to care. Would we have felt the same had the four children been Black? We did love the exchange between Brother Fowles and his spirituality and Nathan and his loveless religion.

We had a discussion on the mission itself after Kathy said that the children should have been sent out when they were told to go but then it was through this that we saw the rich life of the Underdowns in town while the Prices were starving. Then we talked about how this also revealed that Nathan was never actually sent on this mission, and was in fact, told not to come. Nathan insisted he was a man who could only tell the truth but in this light, their whole missionary presence was based on a lie.

And then there was the irony of Orleanna having a picture of Ike that she liked to look at, the fatherly American president, and Ike's administration and the CIA who displaced the elected president of Zaire and replaced him with the malleable Mobuto, which in turn turned their world upside down. Anatole's description of Mobuto? He is the one wife belonging to many white men.

Mary had been in the Cameroons with her Peace Corps daughter and felt that Kingsolver has written an accurate and empathetic picture of this continent, and reminded us that it is not a poor continent but it has poor people. The resources are being scavenged by agencies like The Whole Bank. In Leah's words: No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.

Yesterday in thinking about the book, I wrote a note to myself. Who was the Christ figure? I figured with a story of transgression and redemption, there had a be a Christ figure and I assumed it was Anatole. Kareen and Cheryl picked up on that and started tossing thoughts back and forth, finally declaring it to be Ruth May. She was innocent, died young and in the end came back with the message of forgiveness.

It was a hard book to read and I'm glad I had a book group to read it with, because I came away with so much - an emotionally stretching experience. Thanks Cheryl for reading the ending aloud, because I couldn't have done it.