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The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Barbra Kingsolver is a widely read novelist.  The Poisonwood Bible is one of her most admired works.  The best parts of the book were those written by the mother, and the four children.  The family is led by a Baptist Missionary determined to live out one year in the Congo.

Orleanna is the first to speak.  She writes, “Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs, war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves.  Vines strangle their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.  The breathing of monkeys.  A glide of snake belly on branch.  A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen.” (5).

Leah is next, and she describes her father when he says, “He often says he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds” (36).  Leah describes an African woman who helps the family.  She writes, “Mama Tataba’s job, we were surprised to learn, was to live with us and earn a small stipend doing the same work she’d done for our forerunner in the Kilanga Mission, […] I heard them saying he was New York Irish, which tells you a lot, as they are notorious for being papist Catholics” (38).

Adah, one of the twins, was handicaped as a result of difficult birth.  She never speaks, but she writes eloquently.  “To amuse my depraved Ada self during homework time I wrote down [a] quote from memory on a small triangular piece of paper and passed it to Leah, with the query: FROM WHAT BOOK OF THE BIBLE?  Leah fancies herself our Father’s star pupil in matters Biblical.  [She] read the quote, nodding solemnly, and wrote underneath, The Book of Luke.  I’m not sure which verse. // Hah! I can laugh very hard without even smiling on the outside, // The quote is from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (55).  There is a bit of humor in this disturbing story.

Rachel, the eldest, witnessed a party for the family’s arrival.  She tried not to look at the naked people.  Her father rose to offer a prayer, “‘The Lord rideth in the person of His angels of mercy.  His emissaries of holiness into the cities on the plain, where Lot dwelled amongst the sinners!’ // The cheers were slowing down. […] ‘And Lot said unto the sinners who crowded at his door, I pray ye, brethren, do not do so wickedly!  For the sinners of Sodom pressed their evil will against the entrance to his household’”.  (27). Rachel shuddered.  The guests slowly slunk away.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, is a powerful story when various attitudes toward religion collide.  4 Stars--for the women!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.