Saturday, November 19, 2011

the last book I read

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I've seen this little quote in various places, mostly unattributed - this link attributes it to Annie Dillard's book Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, though she is only quoting a story she heard somewhere else. Anyway, here it is:
I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' 'No,' said the priest, 'not if you did not know.' 'Then why,' asked the Eskimo earnestly, 'did you tell me?'
There are a few schools of thought regarding what you have to do to get to the Christian heaven (the particular branch of vacuous hand-waving nonsense concerned with this is called soteriology). Some say just being generally nice is enough, while others say no, you pretty much have to buy into the whole God/Jesus/crucufixion/rich man/eye of camel thing, otherwise you're fucked. Which, as this blog post observes, means that either all missionaries are arseholes, or God is.

Nathan Price clearly is of the get yourself in there and convert those heathen savages school of thought, and wouldn't have much truck with the Eskimo anecdote, judging by his decision to uproot his family from rural Georgia to the deepest darkest depths of the Congo in 1959. His wife Orleanna and his four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May clearly don't get much of a say in the matter.

Needless to say when they get installed it's not quite the parade of grateful pickaninnies queuing up to be delivered from their primitive unsaved state that they might have expected - the locals have their own gods, thanks, and they seem to be about as effective as any others, generally not wiping out the harvest and killing everyone with flood and pestilence unless they really feel like it. Plus the village chief derives part of his authority from supposedly having the ear of certain key guys in the existing hierarchy. So this new guy Jesus is going to have to display some pretty impressive chops if he's going to displace the incumbents, and Reverend Price is labouring under a few disadvantages, not least the language barrier, but also a general lack of aptitude for dealing with conflict. It's probably at least partly a lack of practice, there being not much in the way of rival snake-worshipping voodoo religions in 1950s Georgia, and not much sassy back-chat at home either, the Rev being an iron-fist patriarchal type.

The daughters, whose alternating voices most of the novel is written in (with occasional interjections from Orleanna) are a bit more receptive to their new surroundings and do their best to integrate with the new community, in their differing ways. Rachel, the eldest, affects a lofty disdain for all the undignified messiness of it all, a stance somewhat undermined by her gift for unfortunate malapropism. Meanwhile feisty Leah helps her father dig the vegetable garden and picks off targets with her home-made bow and arrow, all watched by her mute and crippled twin sister Adah and younger sister Ruth May.

The family survives various scrapes - Adah is briefly believed to have been eaten by a lion, Ruth May breaks her arm, the village is briefly overrun by army ants, and Rachel has to negotiate a series of misunderstandings which nearly result in her being betrothed to the village chief Tata Ndu. Eventually their luck runs out, though; Ruth May is bitten by a green mamba and dies. This is the last straw for Orleanna, and, having presided over the burial, she leads the rest of her daughters out of the village, on foot and in the clothes they stand up in, leaving Nathan to continue his ministry alone.

Having gone their separate ways, the family re-establish themselves in various far-flung locations. Orleanna and Adah return to America, where Adah is eventually cured of her disabilities and becomes a doctor. Leah stays in the Congo with her husband Anatole and witnesses the country's troubled metamorphosis into Zaire. Meanwhile Rachel is working her way through a succession of husbands and ends up running a hotel somewhere north of Brazzaville. The fate of Nathan is never conclusively established, but it is rumoured that he chose the wrong group of people to preach to somewhere deep in the jungle and got himself killed. The novel ends with mother and daughters, reunited, returning to a newly-renamed Congo to try to locate Ruth May's grave.

The troubled history of this particular bit of central Africa, and the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s in particular, is tightly interwoven with the story of the Price family; it turns out, for instance, that Ruth May dies on the same day as Patrice Lumumba is killed and much hope for a brave post-colonial world dies with him. Instead Joseph Mobutu siezes power, with American connivance, and ushers in 30 years of violence and corruption.

The historical stuff is all very fascinating, in fact in a way it's more fascinating than the Price family's African antics - the first two-thirds of the book, covering the family's time living in the village, is interesting in its own way, but not much of any real consequence happens until Ruth May's death, at which point the chronological pace speeds up and the last third of the book covers 35 years or so. You can bet that if this had been by Joyce Carol Oates, an author whose work it superficially resembles, that a great deal more misery and indignity would have been heaped on the family's heads. The all-female voice means that Nathan is a strangely remote figure, too - the inner thoughts and motivations of an evangelical Baptist missionary prepared to come halfway across the world to preach are potentially a good deal more interesting than those of his sixteen-year-old daughter, with the best will in the world.

On the basis of the two Barbara Kingsolver novels I've read, I'd say Prodigal Summer is probably the one to go for, which is not to say that there's anything terribly wrong with The Poisonwood Bible, just that I wasn't totally bowled over by it. I'd also suggest that if you want a novel about a charismatic and slightly deranged father-figure leading his young family into the wilderness with predictably tragic results, the novel you want is Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast.

No comments: