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Poisonwood Bible and Its Targets

Frank Hall, circa 1965, public domain. Wikimedia Commons

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver.

The jobs of spies are justified by the stories they tell, even when the stories lie. They work best when your “customer” wants to hear them.” The oldest two-punch sales routine goes:
     1 – You have a problem.
     2 – We have the solution.

Kingsolver’s book starts in the Congo in 1959. It is not about spies nor about the maneuvers of great states, though her characters’ lives are changed forever by spies, even though neither spies nor characters will ever know the other. So, a skimpy bit of spy background from me regarding the events which led her to this book. We need to start at the end of World War II.

General Reinhard Gehlen had been Hitler’s chief of intelligence for the Eastern Front and Soviet Union. Before and at the end of the war, he sold his organization to the US, as anti-communist rather than Nazi. Gehlen possessed large stores of microfilmed intelligence on the Soviets, which he had hidden before the surrender, exactly what OSS station chief Allen Dulles wanted. When the CIA was created in 1947, in slithered the Gehlen Org, thousands of ex and not-so-ex Nazis, ready and prepared to fight communism. Allen Dulles slithered right in with them.

The stock in trade for intelligence agencies were stories of threats from other nations, in particular the Soviet Union and communism. Communism had been a target of state propaganda since before 1918. After World War II, the American fear of a Soviet invasion of West Germany provided an opening on several occasions for Gehlen to boost himself by falsely warning the US of impending Soviet attacks.

Much of the cold war can be laid at their feet. Threat stories kept them in business. CIA covert operations carried out dozens of coups that most of us never hear about, such as the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, and, in the Congo, Mobutu ousting Prime Minister Lumumba, who the CIA saw as a communist threat.  William Blum’s “Killing Hope” 2003 revision has 56 chapters of US/CIA interventions from 1945 on.

I remember watching “Black Panther” when it came out (2018) then going home to Google the writers, wondering whether they might be white (they’re not), partly because of the warm and fuzzy CIA guy in the movie, played by the genial Martin Freeman. When his character was introduced, I recall immediately thinking one name, “Patrice Lumumba.”

That is the type of expository plot detail Barbara Kingsolver purposely avoids in order to connect us with individuals caught underneath the clash of state powers. The essential population that we never see in detail. It is into this historical context that Kingsolver drops her characters. She herself, had been dropped into the same geography, as a second grader, a couple years after “Poisonwood Bible” starts, when her parents - her father a physician - traveled to Congo as public health workers.

The CIA-fomented upheaval is the raison d'etre for “Poisonwood Bible.” A story she had meant to tell for more than 20 years collecting notes and material, before finally writing the book. Kingsolver wanted to bring us into the sensory experiences of everyday characters in a living landscape, in turmoil, never fully clear to the people in the middle of events.

So, she gives us a five-woman cast, a sort of “Little Women” for the Congo with war and uncertain dangers, writing each chapter to cover a slice of time with separate sections for each character to give her separate impressions of each other within the events in Rashomon-like first-person accounts.

They are the mother and her four young daughters. One daughter will die in Africa. Two will stay. No voice is given to the two main male characters, the evangelist father, Nathan, and the African, Anatole, who will marry one of the daughters. Nor are any Africans given a first-person voice. To whom she would give that voice to evolved as she found and absorbed contemporaneous magazines.

Kingsolver states, “On those slick, faded pages I began to find the heart of my story, which didn't begin in the middle of Zaire at all. The story I'm entitled to tell, the one I needed to tell, was an American one, what we've carried into the world, what we believed, and what we might still learn.” (emphasis mine)

Kingsolver invokes sights, sounds, smells, fears, apprehensions, sensory calls to bring us into the personal world of those whom history and news media mostly forget -- the people. She felt, she tells us, that she would be more effective using atmospheric immersion, in a novel.  She writes, “in the early eighties I read Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World by Jonathan Kwitney.” It is about US economic policy wreaking havoc and creating animosity in the world, much of which she had been unaware of when she and her parents were in Congo.  “I wanted to tell it my way,” she noted, “in a story, readers could connect with emotionally through characters and plot, symbols and allegory.”

Barbara Kingsolver’s plot side steps the engulfing events and politicians. She places our verbal senses into ordinary lives caught in the middle of vaguely understood geopolitics.

Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club


Allen Dulles

“The Devil’s Chessboard” (book excerpt) – detailed excerpt, with material not found elsewhere.

General Reinhard Gehlen

Killing Hope by William Blum (PDF, full book, CIA coups, plots, assassinations from 1945)