The Poisonwood Bible
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The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

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New York Times Bestseller • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize • An Oprah's Book Club Selection

"Powerful... [Kingsolver] has with infinitely steady hands worked the prickly threads of religion, politics, race, sin and redemption into a thing of terrible beauty." — Los Angeles Times Book Review

The Poisonwood Bible, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, established Barbara Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers. Taking its place alongside the classic works of postcolonial literature, it is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in Africa.

The story is told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African soil.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband's part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the teenaged Rachel; adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father's intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

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Book Three


And ye shall make no league with the
inhabitants of this land;
ye shall throw down their altars…

They shall be as thorns in your sides,
and their gods shall be a snare unto you.
JUDGES 2:2–3

Orleanna Price


LISTEN, LITTLE BEAST. Judge me as you will, but first listen. I am your mother. What happened to us could have happened anywhere, to any mother. I’m not the first woman on earth to have seen her daughters possessed. For time and eternity there have been fathers like Nathan who simply can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land. To work her, plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her. Miraculously, it causes these girls to grow. They elongate on the pale slender stalks of their longing, like sunflowers with heavy heads. You can shield them with your body and soul, trying to absorb that awful rain, but they’ll still move toward him. Without cease, they’ll bend to his light.
Oh, a wife may revile such a man with every silent curse she knows. But she can’t throw stones. A stone would fly straight through him and strike the child made in his image, clipping out an eye or a tongue or an outstretched hand. It’s no use. There are no weapons for this fight. There are countless laws of man and of nature, and none of these is on your side. Your arms go weak in their sockets, your heart comes up empty. You understand that the thing you love more than this world grew from a devil’s seed. It was you who let him plant it.
The day does come, finally, when a daughter can walk away from a man such as that—if she’s lucky. His own ferocity turns over inside her and she turns away hard, never to speak to him again. Instead she’ll begin talking to you, her mother, demanding with a world of indignation: How could you let him? Why?
There are so many answers. All of them are faultless, and none good enough.
What did I have? No money, that’s for sure. No influence, no friends I could call upon in that place, no way to overrule the powers that governed our lives. This is not a new story: I was an inferior force.
There was another thing too, awful to admit. I’d come to believe that God was on his side. Does this make me seem lunatic? But I did believe it; I must have. I feared him more than it’s possible to fear a mere man. Feared Him, loved Him, served Him, clamped my hands over my ears to stop His words that rang in my head even when He was far away, or sleeping. In the depths of my sleepless nights I would turn to the Bible for comfort, only to find myself regaled yet again. Unto the woman God said: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms.
My downfall was not predicted. I didn’t grow up looking for ravishment or rescue, either one. My childhood was a happy one in its own bedraggled way. My mother died when I was quite young, and certainly a motherless girl will come up wanting in some respects, but in my opinion she has a freedom unknown to other daughters. For every womanly fact of life she doesn’t get told, a star of possibility still winks for her on the horizon.
Jackson, Mississippi, in the Great Depression wasn’t so different from the Congo thirty years later, except that in Jackson we knew of some that had plenty and I guess that did make us restless from time to time. In Kilanga, people knew nothing of things they might have had—a Frigidaire? a washer-dryer combination? Really, they’d sooner imagine a tree that could pull up its feet and go bake bread. It didn’t occur to them to feel sorry for themselves. Except when children died—then they wept and howled. Anyone can recognize the raging injustice there. But otherwise I believe they were satisfied with their lot.
And so it was for me, as a child in the Depression, with that same practical innocence. So long as I was surrounded only with what I knew, that’s what life had to offer and I took it. As a noticeably pretty child, and later on, a striking girl, I had my own small way in the world. My father, Bud Wharton, was an eye doctor. We lived on the outskirts of Jackson proper, in a scrubby settlement called Pearl. Dad saw patients in the back room of the house, which had metal cabinets for his nested lenses that tinkled like glass wind chimes when you opened and shut the drawers. Up front, we ran a store. We had to, because in hard times everyone’s eyes get better or at least good enough. In the store we sold fresh produce my cousins brought in from their truck farm, and also dry goods and a little ammunition. We squeaked by. We all lived upstairs. At one time there were eleven altogether, cousins from Noxubee County, uncles who came and went with the picking season, and my old Aunt Tess. She was a mother to me if I needed one. What Aunt Tess loved to say was: “Sugar, it’s no parade but you’ll get down the street one way or another, so you’d just as well throw your shoulders back and pick up your pace.” And that was more or less what we all believed in.
I don’t think Dad ever forgave me, later on, for becoming a Free Will Baptist. He failed to see why anyone would need more bluster and testimony about God’s Plan than what he found, for example, within the fine-veined world of an eyeball. That, and a good chicken dinner on Sundays. Dad drank and cursed some but not in any way that mattered. He taught me to cook, and otherwise let me run wild with my cousins. On the outskirts of Pearl lay a wilderness. There we discovered pitcher-plant bogs where we’d hike up our dresses, sink on our knees in the rich black muck, and stare carnivory right in the lips, feeding spiders to the pitcher plants. This was what I worshiped and adored as a child: miracles of a passionate nature. Later on, we discovered kissing boys. Then tent revivals.
It was some combination of all those things that ran me up against Nathan Price. I was seventeen, bursting utterly with happiness. Arm in arm we girls marched forward in our thin cotton dresses with all eyes upon us. Tossing our hair, down the aisle we went between the rows of folding chairs borrowed from the funeral home, right straight to the front of the crowded tent for the Lord’s roll call. We threw ourselves at Jesus with our unsaved bosoms heaving. We had already given a chance to all the other red-necked hooligans in Pearl by then, and were looking for someone who better deserved us. Well, why not Jesus? We were only in it for the short run anyhow—we assumed He would be gone by the end of the week, the same as all others.
But when the tent folded up, I found I had Nathan Price in my life instead, a handsome young red-haired preacher who fell upon my unclaimed soul like a dog on a bone. He was more sure of himself than I’d thought it possible for a young man to be, but I resisted him. His seriousness dismayed me. He could be jolly with old ladies in crepe de chine dresses, patting their hunched backs, but with me he could not let go the subject of heaven except to relieve it occasionally with his thoughts on hell.
Our courtship crept up on me, mainly because I didn’t recognize that’s what it was. I thought he was just bound and determined to save me. He’d park himself on our dusty front-porch steps, fold his suit jacket neatly on the glider, roll up his sleeves, and read to me from the Psalms and Deuteronomy while I shelled beans. How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? The words were mysterious and beautiful, so I let him stay. My prior experience with young men was to hear them swear “Christ almighty in the crap-house!” at any dress with too many buttons. Now here was one from whose mouth came, The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times; and He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. Oh, I wanted those green pastures. I could taste the pale green sweetness of the blade of wheat, stripped and sucked between my teeth. I wanted to lie down with those words and rise up speaking a new language. So I let him stay.
As a young and ambitious revival preacher, his circuit was supposed to divide him equally between Rankin, Simpson, and Copiah counties, but I’ll tell you what: more souls got saved in Pearl that summer than the Lord probably knew what to do with. Nathan hardly missed a Sunday chicken dinner at our house. Aunt Tess finally said, “You’re a-feeding him anyways, child, why not go on and marry him if that’s what he’s after?”
I suppose I’ll never know if that was what he was after. But when I told him Aunt Tess was more or less needing an answer, before committing more chickens to the project, the idea of marriage suited him well enough so that he owned it as his. I hardly had time to think about my own answer—why, it was taken to be a foregone conclusion. And even if anyone had been waiting for my opinion, I wouldn’t have known how to form one. I’d never known any married person up close. What did I know of matrimony? From where I stood, it looked like a world of flattering attention, and what’s more, a chance to cross the county line.
We married in September and spent our honeymoon picking cotton for the war effort. In ’39 and ’40 there had been such talk of war, the boys were getting called up just to make a show of being ready for anything, I suppose. But Nathan had always been exempted, as an indispensible worker—not for the Lord, but for King Cotton. He did farm labor between revivals, and in the autumn of ’41 it was our first enterprise as newlyweds to bend our backs together in the dusty fields. When the rough cotton pokes were filled, our hands clawed raw and our hair and shoulders tufted with white, we believed we’d done our part. Never did we dream that shortly the bombs would fall on a faraway harbor whose name struck a chill across our own small, landlocked Pearl.
By the end of that infamous week, half the men in all this world were pledged to a single war, Nathan included. He was drafted. At Fort Sill, his captain made note of Nathan’s faith and vouched that he’d serve as a hospital cleric or chaplain, decently removed from enemy lines. I let out my breath: now I could truly say I loved the Lord! But then, without any explanation, Nathan found himself in Paris, Texas, training for the infantry. I was allowed to spend two weeks with him there on the wind-swept plain, mostly waiting in the strange vacancy of a cold apartment, trying to compose cordial things to say to the other wives. What flotsam and jetsam we were, women of all accents and prospects washed up there boiling grits or pasta, whatever we knew as comfort, united by our effort not to think about our husbands’ hands learning to cradle a gun. At night I cradled his head on my lap and read him the Scriptures: The Lord is my rock and my fortress…the horn of my salvation…so shall I be saved from mine enemies. When he left, I went home to Pearl.
He wasn’t even gone three months. He was trucked, shipped, and shuttled on the Asiatic Fleet, and finally encamped under palm trees on the Philippine shore, to make his stand for General MacArthur. His company fought their way into Luzon, facing nothing worse than mosquitoes and jungle to begin with, but on their second night were roused from sleep by artillery. Nathan was struck in the head with a shell fragment. He ran for cover, dazed, and spent the night in a bamboo pig shed. He had suffered a concussion but gradually regained consciousness through the dawn and staggered about half-blinded into the open, with no more sense of direction than an insect rushing at flame. By pure luck, just before nightfall, he was spotted on the beach and picked up by a PT boat. From a hospital bunker in Corregidor Island he wrote me a cheerful V-mail letter about his salvation by the grace of God and a Jap hog manger. He couldn’t tell his location, of course, but promised me he was miraculously mostly intact, and coming home soon!
That was the last I would ever hear from the man I’d married—one who could laugh (even about sleeping in a manger), call me his “honey lamb,” and trust in the miracle of good fortune. I can still picture the young soldier who wrote that letter while propped up in bed, smiling through his eyepatch and bandages, showing the nurses a photo of his pretty bride with Delta cotton poking out of her hair. Enjoying, as it turned out, the last happy hours of his life. He hadn’t yet learned what happened to the rest of his company. In a few days the news would begin to reach Corregidor. Through the tunnels of that island fortress came wind of a horror too great to speak aloud—a whispered litany that would take years to be fully disclosed to the wo...

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