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Reading Buddies Discussion: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

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Hello Reading Buddies! How is The Poisonwood Bible going for you? I only got around to starting it earlier this week and am about 200 pages in (the start of the Judges section). It’s not my first Kingsolver, but it is my first of her novels. A few years back I read and loved Animal Vegetable Miracle about Kingsolver’s year living locally.

The things I knew about The Poisonwood Bible going in were (a) that it was about missionaries in Africa, and (b) that it is one of Kingsolver’s better known books. I like not knowing much about a book when I start it, and this one is no exception. I like not having many preconceptions about a book before I read it.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (cover)What struck me most as I began reading The Poisonwood Bible was its narrative structure. It seems pretty complicated, really: sections, each (so far, at least) begun by the mother, Orleanna, looking back on her family’s time in the Congo, the day-to-day of which is then filled in by alternating accounts from her four daughters. All the perspectives are female, and I’ve yet to meet a male character who’s painted in a positive light. At the same time, there don’t seem to be any strong females, none that stand up and take the reigns of their lives away from the men.

I’m impressed by how well Kingsolver distinguishes the voices of the five women. That’s quite a feat, I think, to write five distinct female voices, especially when three of them are so close in age. I rarely have to look at the name on each chapter; I can tell by the vocabulary, the language, and the type of observations being made which girl is narrating. The constant switching between perspectives means Kingsolver can give us a fairly complete, if biased, picture of the Price family’s life: Rachel on the missing comforts, Leah on relationships (and especially her father) and facts, Adah on everything the rest of her family misses, and Ruth May on…well…all the miscellany that appeals to a young child. I find that Kingsolver’s youngest character often makes the sharpest observations, even if she herself may not yet understand the deeper meaning of what she’s observing.

One paragraph on page 62 (of my hardcover edition) in particular gave me the mental image of the Price girls that’s stuck with me. As described by Adah:

“What a landing party we were as we staled about, identically dressed in saddle oxfords, long-tailed shirts, and pastel cotton pants, but all so different. Leah went first as always, Goddess of the Hunt, her weasel-colored pixie haircut springing with energy, her muscles working together like parts of a clock. Then came the rest of us: Ruth May with pigtails flying behind her, hurrying mightily because she is youngest and believes the last shall be first. And then Rachel, our family’s own Queen of Sheba, blinking her white eyelashes, flicking her long whitish hair as if she were the palomino horse she once craved to own. Queen Rachel drifted along several paces behind, looking elsewhere. She was almost sixteen and above it all, yet still unwilling for us to find something good without her. Last of all came Adah the monster, Quasimodo, dragging her right side behind her left in her body’s permanent stepsong sing: left…behind, left…behind.”

I’m also interested by the slice of life in the Congo the Price family provides. It’s an area of the world I know little about, and though I know the Price children aren’t at all objective, still their observations are interesting to me.

I’m waiting for something to go horribly awry. The air of foreboding pervading the novel is heavy. I still have plenty of pages left in which things may come to a head, but I’ve no doubt they will!

If you’re reading or have read The Poisonwood Bible, feel free to share your thoughts and/or pose questions for other participants here. Please be careful to warn of spoilers in your comments or let people know where in the book you are. I’d also love to know if you’ve discussed the book on your blog so that I can link to your post in the wrap-up post, two weeks down the line.

Over to you!

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  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I read this one several years ago and keep telling myself I want to read it again, but I haven’t yet because of the length. I’m glad you’re enjoying it–I loved the writing, but I do remember it being a bit of a saga. Horribly awry might be an apt description–though I say that not referring to one big event. I also found the historical bits about The Congo fascinating!

    • Erin

      It’s definitely a long book! The writing is what I love most about the book, definitely. I was expecting someone to die horribly, which hasn’t happened yet, but I guess could! So, so far, horribly awry, yes, but not as tragically or dramatically as I’d expected! The historical bits are interesting, and I’m impressed by how seamlessly Kingsolver weaves them into the story. There really aren’t long passages about history; it’s more like bits and pieces dropped here and there. I’m excited to finish it!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I loved this book so much, and have read it several times. The last reread was last year, but I am thinking of doing it again in the next couple of months. Just a brilliant book. Glad to hear you are enjoying it!

    • Erin

      Wow, that’s impressive, considering its length! Just based on the narration alone, I feel like it’s the kind of book you can get more out of and notice more in every time you read it. There are so many layers, from the character voices to the issues the book deals with, that I can definitely see how multiple readings would be enjoyable (and probably slightly different from one another).

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    I read this as part of TLC book tours last year and really loved it. Like you, I was really struck by the different voices of the Price sisters – Adah was definitely my favorite! – and I swiftly became mesmerized by the book. I think it just keeps getting stronger as you keep reading, so fear not, the best is yet to come!

    • Erin

      Yes, Adah is wonderful! I love her insights and the way she phrases things. Though the writing backwards is getting a little annoying. I’m another 150 pages past where I was when I wrote this post, and I’d definitely say it’s getting stronger. Before the writing was pulling me along, mostly, but now the plot is doing so as well.

  • http://thestorygirlbookreviews.blogspot.com LL

    I love this book. The voices were also what stood out most for me. I couldn’t believe how unique they all were. I LOVE when Rachel uses the wrong big, fancy-sounding words, and I find Ruth’s little mistakes and misconceptions regarding the Gospel to be so heartbreaking. Nathan really is a jerk. I hope you continue to enjoy!

    • Erin

      Yes, Rachel’s attempts to be linguistically sophisticated are great! Sometimes I feel like Ruth May’s sections are a little advanced for a five-year-old, but then, I’ve never been around a five-year-old, so I might be wrong in my assumption. Either way, I love how each sister has a unique way of sharing her observations (conscious or un-) and furthering the story. And Nathan…ugh!

  • http://ardentreader.wordpress.com Christina

    I went back and looked at my paperback copy of the book to see where you are (pg. 186), but I’m further along than you as I’m on page 277, which is almost the end of the Judges section. I will try to keep my spoiling down to a minimum, but I will tell you the sense of foreboding you feel will come to head shortly. Or, at least, it will be approaching the climax of the novel shortly.

    Personally, I much prefer the voices of Orlenna’s children rather than the sections narrated by her. I think children have an interesting take on life and are less likely to filter what they say (which I think Kingsolver manages to maintain even though this is a novel). I did appreciate the section in which Orlenna explains why she has stayed with her husband as I think it better explains her as a person, explains how she really is a ‘strong woman’ yet unable to “take the reins of their lives away from the men”, as you said. And I agree that Kingsolver does a good job delineating between the narrators

    I’ve mentioned twice in the past week(s) things I find interesting in the novel – colonialism and diamonds – and I think the (SPOILER) exit of the Belgians in the Congo and the seize of power by different men in Congo to be very interesting. I had no idea Americans were worried about the Soviets gaining power and therefore access to diamonds and other natural resources. And all of this is coming to head whilst our young narrators are learning about gender relations and religion in the Congo. I’m going to have to echo Steph above and say I am swiftly becoming mesmerized by the book.

    • Erin

      I’m nearing the end of Judges at this point, and the story is finally starting to pull me along; for a while, it was the writing I was interested in more than the story itself. I do find myself liking the daughters better than the mother; they’re more engaging and less colored by foreshadowing and gloom. And yes, as you say, they’re less likely to filter; they’re also focused on such different things that the resulting picture is multidimensional. Orleanna reads more like your typical adult narrator. As I continue to read, I’m feeling less like Orleanna is weak and more that she’s relatively powerless and doing what she can. I’m glad!

      There’s so much going on with the characters and their voices that I can hardly keep them and everything else in the novel in mind! The snippets of politics that are coming through are very interesting, and I’m learning about an area of the world I know almost nothing about without feeling like I’m learning about it (which is one thing I love about good fiction). I think this is a book that will lend itself well to multiple readings — with everything on, and all the levels I could be reading at, I think I could read the book at least several more times and get something slightly different out of it every time.

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    I read it pre-blog, and all I remember is not liking it. I don’t even know why I didn’t like it. I’m just left with the compulsion to run screaming for the hills whenever I see the book.

    And yes, I know I’m in the distinct minority of people who don’t love this book.

    • Erin

      Ha, I have a few books like that! So far, I seem to be in the majority with regards to this book, but I’m still a couple hundred pages from the end…we’ll see what happens!

  • http://lifetimereadingplan.blogspot.com/ LifetimeReader

    I loved this book–and have been a huge Kingsolver fan for a long time. (Animal, Veg, Miracle even convinced us to plant a veggie garden in our front yard.) A beautifully told story about a range of characters, an exploration of religion, and an analysis of colonialism/cold war stuff–what an amazing combination.

    • Erin

      Yes, Animal Vegetable Miracle was so inspirational, wasn’t it? I’ve lived in apartments my whole life, and I can’t wait until I have a piece of ground to plant! You summed up The Poisonwood Bible quite well! There are so many levels and aspects to the book, I can’t even hold in mind everything that’s going on. Definitely a good book for discussion!

  • http://bibliophilebythesea.blogspot.com/2011/01/mailbox-monday-january-10th.html (Diane)BibliophileBytheSea

    I loved the audio of this one when I read it in 2010 –good choice.

    • Erin

      Ooh, good to hear the audio is good. I’m thinking, if I like the last chunk of the book, it’ll be one I’ll revisit. There’s so much going on I’m not sure I can process it all in just one reading! Maybe my next go-round will be on audio.

  • http://litandlife.blogspot.com Lisa

    I read this one last year for the first time (I say that because I’ll definitely read it again some day). I was also impressed by how well Kingsolver had written those five separate voices–the characters are each so unique. I so wanted to smack that father of theirs around!

    • Erin

      Yes, the five voices are wonderfully distinct! I love how they all work together to give you the story, and how they complement one another so well. Their father, though, I’m finding less and less sympathetic.

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I read this book out of a sense of obligation in college, and was surprised to find I loved it. Kingsolver’s ability to differentiate her characters’ voices, and to be humorous when telling such a difficult story, really really impressed me. My sister and mother hated it though — they said it was depressing from page one and never stopped being depressing all the way through. But I loved it. I’ve never liked another of Kingsolver’s books nearly as much.

    • Erin

      That’s a great point about the humor — Kingsolver works that in even though it’s not a funny situation, nor do any of the characters actually find it funny. No one I know has actually read the book, so I’m not really going on anyone else’s opinions (which is kind of nice!). I can see where it would be labeled depressing, though for me it has plenty of redeeming aspects that counteract that darkness. I did read Animal Vegetable Miracle, which I really enjoyed, but it was a completely different trip. No other Kingsolver novel has really appealed to me, except for The Poisonwood Bible!

  • http://eatthebooks.com Emily @ Eat the Books!

    I’m about 200 pages into the book, and do have to say, I like the different voices from all of the girls. Since much of my professional background is in international development, I am disturbed by the Price father (or rather, “Our Father”) as a Baptist missionary coming into this small village to preach his Christian beliefs. It seems that all of the Price girls, and Orleanna (sp?), the mother, have painted Father Price in a bad way…but for a good reason.

    I’m enjoying this book, though for some reason I can’t read more than twenty pages at a time. I’m not sure if it’s the detail that goes into each of the girls’ voices, but I do find this fascinating.

    Did anyone read the author’s note in the beginning? Kingsolver spent some of her childhood in the Congo, though her parents weren’t missionaries. I find that interesting.

    • Erin

      Oh, what an interesting background to be reading The Poisonwood Bible from! Our Father is kind of scary, I think, because of both his stubborn personality and his narrow mindset. I’m having a hard time feeling anything but wary dislike for him, which maybe is about all you’re supposed to feel!

      I’m glad to hear you’re not tearing through the book — I’m not, either! I really have to slow down and adjust to each girl’s voice every time I start a new chapter, because they’re so distinct. I don’t mind, because I love the writing, but it’s definitely taking me longer to read.

      I missed the author’s note, but I’ll have to take a look at it. I always like knowing when an author has a particular connection with what s/he is writing about.

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