Ally’s #17 The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This work of historical fiction landed a spot on Oprah’s book club list several years ago. I picked it up cheap at a used bookstore when I was in college. I wasn’t Christian at the time, and I distinctly remember putting the book down and thinking “If that’s what mission work and loving Jesus is all about, then I don’t want any of it.”  I also recall crushing the dreams of a classmate who had shared with me that her lifelong passion was to be a missionary to Africa. I told her missions were a sham and that she should read this book. My, oh my, how things have changed since then.

The book hasn’t changed, but I have–dramatically–and any good change in me I attribute solely to Christ. Now it’s my dream to be a missionary in a distant land. I love reading missionary biographies and encourage friends to read them as well. I decided to pick this book up again and to read it with new eyes, a new mind, and a new heart. I learned a great deal more the second time around.

If I had to briefly sum up this book, I’d call it the “How NOT to do Missions Handbook.” It follows the journey of the Price family, a Southern bunch that venture to the Congo in response to the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The book is told from the point of view of Orleanna Price and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

At the head of the family is Nathan Price, a zealous, strong-willed, ill-tempered man who is dead set on baptizing each and every person he meets in the Congo…never mind the crocodiles lying in wait in the river that would snatch up children in an instant. Nathan is resistant to anything that exists outside of his tunnel vision and takes criticism as an affront to his goals. Despite being rejected by the Baptist Missions Society to go to the Congo, he starts raising funds anyway.

The Price’s receive no pre-field training in language or culture, and it shows the day they arrive in Kilanga. Within hours of their arrival, they manage to insult the entire village, who just sacrificed an exorbitant amount of food to celebrate and welcome the Price family. Nathan loves to preach about the preciousness of Jesus, but his mispronunciation of the tonal Kikongo language means that he often speaks of Jesus and the Bible as “poisonous.” “Come to Jesus, everyone! He wants to give you pussy boils and pain! My, he is a good Jesus! He wants you to feed your children to the crocodiles!” No wonder no one trusted this Jesus.

Orleanna carries the burden of feeding their large family three meals a day with a garden that won’t produce anything, a husband who doesn’t know (and isn’t interested in learning) how to hunt for meat, and a small stipend from the mission society that basically says, “We didn’t want you here in the first place, but we don’t want you to die of starvation.” Orleanna loses her precious house helper and cook extraordinaire, Mama Tataba, to Nathan’s relentless push to get children into the crocodile infested river for baptisms. Mama Tataba gives him a piece of her mind and then leaves–her compassion is all dried up for this stubborn man who doesn’t want to hear what anyone has to say or learn anything from anybody.

In reading the daughters’ accounts, as well as those of Orleanna, I realized that none of them truly had a firm grip on the Gospel: that we are justified and saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Jesus Christ. Orleanna went to a tent revival when she was a teen because it was the “cool” thing to do, and you’d be more attractive to handsome Christian men if you looked like you really meant it when they did an altar call. Nathan Price believed with all his might that he earned God’s favor. Going to the Congo was a good thing, so God had to bless it and take care of them and give them oodles of converts. God just had to. Even when political upheaval forces the missions society to evacuate all its members, Nathan Price refuses to leave or send his family home. No Price would leave the Congo until his work was done, regardless of the dangers it posed to have zero means of support. Even his wife falling into a severe depression and one of his daughters dying didn’t make him budge on his convictions. Eventually, enough was enough for Orleanna and the surviving girls, and they left without so much as a goodbye.

The latter 1/3 of the story is about their departure and the way each woman carried that year-long experience in Kilanga into their future. One daughter found love, while the eldest found found a string of husbands/lovers. Another daughter found a voice and a passion for medicine and contributed greatly to work in infectious diseases. Pretty ironic considering her father is a total misogynist:

‘Sending a girl to college is like pouring water into your shoes,’ he still loves to say, as often as possible. ‘It’s hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes.’

Orleanna lived on in Georgia, never remarrying because one husband was about enough to kill her, and beating herself up over the loss of one of her girls. I was surprised that the book continued on as it did giving glimpses here and their of how the girls lives had morphed over about 30 years. It could have easily ended with their escape from Kilanga, but it was interesting to see how their lives were forever impacted by Africa and what they experienced there.

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