Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

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Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

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When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!