One of my favorite formats for stories is where the author alternates telling the tale from various points of view. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a masterful example of a tale unfolding from unique perspectives.
The drama of life in the Belgian Congo circa 1959 evolves very differently for evangelical minister Nathan Price, his wife and four daughters as they negotiate the harsh realities of adjusting to a world that stands in stark contrast to the one they left back in the southern U.S.
While the political upheaval of the time serves as the turbulent background, the story is primarily told from the personal perspective, encompassing the daily lives of the girls’ coming-of-age in an often cruel environment.
I love the psychology of how the very same event can be experienced so differently by people depending on divergent aspects of their personality and circumstances. I’m enthralled by the often vast variances in perspective. I’m intrigued by how each person casts themselves into the interpretation without even realizing it.
We think we see and experience an external event, but, in the end, who we are in the situation is as much a part of our experience of the event as the external circumstances. As Neil Gaiman wrote in The Graveyard Book, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
One of the early tools Kingsolver uses to delineate the separate personalities is a description of the objects each chooses to bring on this voyage to a strange land. Preacher Dad brings seeds, so he can feed the hungry and teach the natives to work the land like a real Georgia farmer. Right from the start his assumption speaks volumes about the ignorance and arrogance that will carry him through the entire story. Preacher Dad’s actions signal the reader to look toward the brick wall he is headed straight into, and we’re captivated by the pending disaster like the proverbial train wreck.
Each of the girls brings with them to the Congo treasured items reflective of their respective ages and the life they left behind – things that are, of course, ridiculously out of place in Africa. And Mother Orleanna brings Betty Crocker boxed cake mixes for each of the girls, stubbornly insisting that they will at least have a normal birthday cake. It is the realization of how these chosen items no longer make sense that serves as a poignant analogy to the larger loss and adjustment they each face. For some, being thrust out of their comfort zone forces them to grow and stretch in ways they never imagined, albeit painfully. For others it compels them to cling desperately to old ideas and ways, dysfunctional as they are.
Its politics may be controversial, but in terms of an exploration of the human condition, its penchant for adaptation and conversely its vulnerability to downward spirals, I found it riveting.
While some readers have criticized the book, released in 1998, based on nuances of the socio-political issues of the setting, I found its meaning more impactful on the micro level. For me, it was an intriguing tale, sometimes dark and sometimes light, of how the human spirit can both triumph and be broken. It is alternatively harrowing and titillating; sorrowful and joyful, much like life in any setting can be. Its politics may be controversial, but in terms of an exploration of the human condition, its penchant for adaptation and conversely its vulnerability to downward spirals, I found it riveting.
Being an ex-pat myself (though in much kinder, gentler circumstances) the depiction of how the environment changed the course of each of the character’s individual lives was engrossing. Like the Price family, I expected to stay a short while, yet remained for decades.
As those who left our homes, we left behind In our wake relatively unanswerable questions: Who would each of these characters be if they had remained in Georgia? Who would I be if I hadn’t planted myself in European soil?