The Price of His Failures

Jan 27, 2021

Perhaps the cost of Reverend Price’s lack of understanding of the culture and the environment in which he lived was his own life when he tried to baptize children in the crocodile-infested Kwilu River.
Credit Radio Okapi, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hi, I’m Phillip Periman from Amarillo, Texas. I will be one of the discussants for the Radio Readers Book Club this spring.  The first book we read, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 1998, has a story that resonates today. In the novel, the Reverend Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist missionary from Georgia, takes his wife Oleanna and his four daughters Rachel, the twins Adah and Leah and their baby Ruth May to a remote area of the Congo.  It is 1959 -60 and the Congo is struggling to rid itself of Belgian rule. This conflict goes unnoticed by the reverend who believes he is called by God to bring the Gospel to the natives.

The story of his attempt and his failures is told through the eyes of all of the Price women.  Nathan is always the patriarch whose Biblical obsessions obscure any understanding of the people he and his family encounter. Immediately it is clear Price has not a clue about what he is doing. He brings vegetable seeds from Georgia, plants a garden ignoring the advice of his native housekeeper. The result? First, he gets a terrible rash from the poisonwood tree he was told not to touch.  Second, the first big rain washes away his garden. He replants the garden following the locals’ advice. He gets lots of plants but no produce because there are no germinating insects for his American plants.

His efforts at evangelizing the natives are equally fruitless.  In an early chapter in the book, the mother, Oleanna, writing more than twenty later from Sanderling Island in Georgia, makes us aware of how badly their time in the Congo came to be. She relates that now in the states when she encounters smells that remind her of Africa, she finds them “impossible to bear.” She lets us know that one of her daughters dies there. With foreboding, we continue to follow the family’s ill-advised adventures.

Simultaneously, this is the time the Congolese people break free from European colonialism and elect a Communist, Patrick Lumumba as their leader.  Fifteen years later, the Church Committee of the United States Senate uncovers the United States’ role in engineering a coup which resulted in Lumumba’s death and his replacement by U.S. supported military dictator.  After the coup, the Reverend Price is told to leave, his missionary salary cut off.  But he refuses, believing that he, like Job, is being tested by God.

There follows a long period of suffering by the Prices just to survive. Completely unaware of the effects of his teaching, Nathan continues to insult and embarrass the natives. He ends every sermon saying in the native’s language that Jesus is precious. However, his pronunciation is such that it sounds like he is saying, “Jesus is poisonwood.”

Unbeknownst to Price, the natives begin to support his family as their lack of income and other resources becomes obvious. As the family’s troubles mount, we wonder increasingly why the mother does not take her daughters and leave.  This she does only after one of them dies. I won’t say who because part of the suspense of reading the novel is knowing that this would happen, but not to who or when.

Nathan stays on. Eventually he is killed in another village for foolishly baptizing children in a river full of crocodiles. The women in Kingsolver’s novel tell their stories vividly and with poignancy. The reader can’t help but feel a sense of their isolated attempts at goodness inevitably failing.

In much the same way, the behavior of our American government changing the rulers in the Congo is equally misplaced and damaging as the Reverend Prices’ preaching. When will we ever learn?

This has been Phillip Periman for the High Plains Readers Book Club.