Not a Fan

Jan 29, 2021

Valerie, our Radio Readers BookByte contributor questions the Reverend Price’s use of the Bible as “dreaded verse.” Punishment.
Credit Leon Brooks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hi, I’m Valerie a radio reader from Topeka and I just finished Genesis which is part I of the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is part of HPPR’s radio readers book club this go round with the theme cultures in common.

First, a confession: I love Kingsolver. The Prodigal Summer is one of my favorite books. BUT this is my second try reading the Poisonwood Bible and I am NOT a fan. The book is about a missionary family of Baptists that go to the Congo for a year. It’s set in the 1950s and told from the point of view of the 4 daughters and the mother.

The first part is all about their adjustment to a totally foreign environment. One thing I love about Kingsolver is her rich descriptions. I feel like I’m in a jungle with the oppressive heat or the never ending rain: “When the rainy fell on us in Kilanga, it fell like the plague. . .the serene heavens above began to dump buckets” (82).

What Kingsolver also does well are my two main complaints with the book. First, are the gender dynamics of the Price family. The minister father is literally lord and master over his four daughters and wife. All the females in the family live in fear of his wrath including the “dreaded verse.” The girls are punished with the Bible. Their father gives them a beginning Bible verse and they must write long hand that verse and the following 99 verses “because it is the final one that reveals your crime” (84). This happened when the parrot they inherited started spouting a new word: “damn.” 

It turns out the parrot learned the word from their mother who was distraught that the boxed cake mixes she had brought to Africa with her from home to celebrate her daughters’ birthdays had hardened in the African climate and were inedible. The girls protected their mother from their father who castigated their mother with “words and worse for curtains unclosed or slips showing—the sins of womanhood” (96).

The other part of the book that rubs me the wrong way is that Africa and Africans, specifically are a backdrop, not even a supporting cast, but more like the occasional guest of the book. Rarely do we get a glimpse of the people who live there except when they do something wrong in the eyes of Reverend Price—the women showing their naked breasts, no one volunteering to get baptized.

What we learn about Africa is how it is wrong—the Kentucky Wonder Beans they brought from home for their garden won’t grow, the African parrot swears. The Prices try to bend Africa to their will but are foiled time and again.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. What do you like about the book? I’m Valerie for the HPPR Radio Readers.