Based in the Congo of 1960 with a background formed from a tapestry of the Congolese jungle, independence from Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, the Kleptocrat Mobuto, international politics and greed, and still more jungle, the Poisonwood Bible is a book about people and change and changelessness. To read it through in one sitting would lead to an indigestion, yet even leaving the novel after consuming a gulp of just twenty or thirty pages does not stop the reader from reading. Turning over the pages in your mind, worrying about the future, puzzling about the characters, raging with anger at the outside influences.
A quick synopsis gives clues of the power of this story. A mercilessly strict Baptist Minister, Nathan Price, returned from service in the Second World War becomes, with his wife and four daughters, an unsuited missionary in the Congo. Convinced that God does not change and that by being faithful to his vision of Bible Truths he can bring American Civilisation to the jungle. Despite that jungle doing its best to show him that his methodology is wrong, he never changes his plans. He is determined to bring these Children of Ham into the Light. His family get on with life as well as they can, with their flaws and foibles. From the beginning we are told by the mother that only four of the six survive to come out of that dark time. A husband and a child will be lost within the terrible beauty of this novel.
Skilfully told, using all five female voices, the tale tells of the seventeen months leading to the tragedy and then, reduced to just four, the voices tell of the effects of that terrible, wonderful time of growing and loss and learning on the subsequent thirty years.
I have seen the effect of Christian missionaries on the Aboriginal people of Australia. The well meant attempts to overcome the twin evils of European contamination of a pristine culture and the worship of strange, primitive Gods. Nathan Price had the same aim and earnest desire. Yet the jungle held out. The people of the jungle mock the intruders while taking what they need from those same intruders.
Shakespearian in its inexorable march to the tragedy of African de-colonisation, with many Iagos plotting from inter-continental distances, mirrored in the slow decline of a Father’s primacy within his family, the Poisonwood Bible left me in tears of grief as a child died senselessly and in tears of rage at the greater evils of the power games of which I read nearly half a century ago and did not understand. Although, perhaps even those evils were simply the larger result of a truth one daughter found during her time in that jungle. “The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep.“