To confess, I’m becoming increasingly addicted to African novels, ever since Chinua Achebe’s magnificent Things Fall Apart, which is the African novel to top the canonical collection of them all. But Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has me hooked. Kingsolver is easily one of my favorite novelists. She is a master storyteller, and in The Poisonwood Bible, she weaves the stories of four girls and a mother who are taken to the Congo, in 1959, by their Baptist preacher father, a driven, angry man intent on converting the natives to the salvation of Jesus Christ.
I’m amazed at Kingsolver’s ability to weave the stories of the family together, in the voices of each of the women of the family. The writing entertains, intrigues, then entertains some more. Then, when you are completely submerged in the narrative, Kingsolver nails you in the back of the head with a profound post-colonial insight.
Orleanna Price is the mother of the family. About a decade or two after their African experience, Orleanna reflects on the CIA coup d’etat to remove the first democratically elected Prime Minister. She also reflects on the fact that while in the Congo, in her struggle to simply survive on a daily basis, she had no thought of the greater world. Only of the day to day challenges. But looking back, she reflects that “I was occupied so entirely with each day, I felt detached from anything so large as a month or a year. History didn’t cross my mind. Now it does. Now I know whatever your burdens, to hold yourself apart from the lot of more powerful men is an illusion.”
Indeed. Many of us prefer the illusion, to believe that the actions of others are not all that significant to our daily lives. Or, perhaps some of us find ourselves in the opposite side of the pendulum, knowing how interconnected things are, we panic and stress and worry about how the workings of the powers-that-be are destroying the world and inflicting global suffering. The knowledge of good and evil works in us like a poison.
It’s the rare person who can look the powers in the eye and and remain, unflinching. But this, I think, was the teaching of Jesus and the other great prophetic figures of history: awareness of the workings of the powerful without allowing it to submerge the heart and soul in negativity.