The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it -- from garden seeds to Scripture -- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
“Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms.”
A well written book with an engaging exploration of hubris. The hubris of colonial powers who think they are superior to their colonies. The hubris of men who think they are superior to women. And the hubris of religious men who think their religion is superior to all others.
In many ways, Nathan Price's attempt to grow an American garden in the Congo is representative of all those endeavours. First, he uses methods which work in Georgia and refuses all advice from local people. When his work gets washed away by the rains, he relents and uses local techniques. Then, his crops appear to flourish and grow luxurious foliage, but no fruits or seeds manifest. Eventually he realizes there are no pollinators for his pumpkins and beans, which will never amount to anything edible.
After the failure of his garden, Nathan gives up any attempt to feed and care for his wife and daughters. Instead, they must fend for themselves and face physical violence if they don't care for his needs. He remains obsessed with converting the Congolese to Christianity, while ignoring his own unChristian behaviour. Simultaneously, his Congolese neighbours display great charity, placing eggs under the Prices' chickens and depositing food in the kitchen under the cover of night. Instead of ministering to the natives, they minister to the Price family.
Nathan also refuses to study the local language to be able to express himself clearly. As a result, he is constantly saying, "Jesus is poisonwood" when he thinks he is proclaiming the greatness of Christ. He inhabits his own reality, which bears no resemblance to that of any one around him. His lack of empathy for others undercuts his message constantly. When confronted by missionaries who practice compassionate Christianity, Nathan becomes even more truculent and resistant, rather than recognizing the value of care and kindness.
The Price women are every bit as colonized as the Congo, as they are unwillingly exported from Georgia. All their dreams and desires are over-ridden by their patriarch's obsessions and goals. I found myself cheering for them as they (and the Congo) chose independence, with varying degrees of success.
Colonial powers and the patriarchy may deny the reality of their colonies and of women, but that reality nonetheless exists. As Rachel Price says, "The way I see Africa, you don't have to like it but you sure have to admit it's out there."