Friday, February 5, 2016

Poisonwood Bible RAL - Week 1 Discussion

Thank you for joining me for the read-along. I am so glad to have people sharing their reading momentum with me to help get me through a great book!

I admit, I had to take a little time this week to learn more about The Democratic Republic of The Congo, a place I learned in school as Zaire. It is a country with unimaginable natural resources including cobalt, tin, uranium, diamonds, copper, gold, and oil. The land is shrouded by tropical rainforest and goods and be shipped to and from the nation's metros via the Congo River, the second largest river in the world.

Congo shares borders with Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. It's border with Rwanda is considered the most deadly international border in the world.

A land that was well-developed and sophisticated in the 15th century was discovered by Portuguese traders in 1480. In addition to the natural resources of the area, the traders discovered their greatest Kingdom of Kongo commodity: the human slave. In order to displace the existing political system, create anarchy and reap the spoils, the Portuguese started funneling modern weaponry and funds to Kongolese gangs who eventually toppled their home military forces. This started a decline from which the country has never recovered.

We join the Price family there in 1959, the final year of the colonial Belgian Congo where three main facets of society kept order: the state, the missionary, and the private company. From Wikipedia:

"During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo had extensive urbanisation, and the colonial administration began various development programmes aimed at making the territory into a "model colony". One of the results was the development of a new middle class of Europeanised African "évolués" in the cities. By the 1950s the Congo had a wage labour force twice as large as that in any other African colony."

This increased boom in middle class society caused the pro-independence movement to surge.

1. In what ways is the book as you thought it would be? In what ways is it different?

  •  For re-readers, is there anything you had forgotten since you read it the first time?

2. Which character is your favorite?

3. Which character seems most like yourself, at heart?

4.  Talk about Adah.

5. What parts of our reading have you scratching your head at this point, or make you wish for more development?

6. List three things worth strapping to your body if you were headed for a year in the Congo.

Reading Schedule:

Feb 1-7: Genesis, Revelation
Feb 8-14: Judges, Bel and the Serpent
Feb 15-21: Exodus, Song of the Three Children
Feb 22-20: The Eyes in the Trees


  1. I love the questions Amanda and will think about my answers and get back to you.
    It's a wonderful book for a RAL, my first time reading it, and I too had to do a little African research, love going off on the rabbit trail.

  2. 1. I had no expectations of the book when I bought it, I had heard it was good and I knew the author Kingsolver, but other than that I didn't know anything about the book.

    2. Adah is my favorite and I love when we come to her character in the story. My favorite line from the readings so far is from her, " It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell."

    3. As a 16 year old Rachel could have been my soul sister, but I am happy to report that I outgrew that girl a long time ago.
    Really the only one I can relate to is Orleanna. She is a wife and a mama just trying to take care of her family. She remarked once about wanting to leaving them all and run away which I think any mama, if she is totally truthful, may have had that thought at one time or another. And her love of the china platter, oh that is me! :)

    4. I adore her. I think she is the most intelligent of the four girls despite having hemiplegia. The backwards talking gets to me a bit, but then maybe she is smarter than I am!

    5. I wish the story had begun with a little more history on Belgium controlled Congo and the life there. I found myself searching Google several times, not only on the Congo's history, but also to learn more about Patrice Lumumba who could have been more detailed too.

    I scratched my head at Anatole being with the ragtag 'boy scouts', what's up with him, part of revolution? And the diamonds hidden in sacks in the plane of Axleroot, is there more to come on that?

    6. A skein of cobweb yarn with as much yardage as I can find,
    Size 0 knitting needles
    Peppermint gum, because I am a gum chewer.

  3. I will be back to comment my thoughts, I am still trying to finish out Revelation. I just read the section where Nathan breaks the platter. He makes me so angry, angry Angry! Back in the next day or so to comment on your questions!

    1. Nathan makes me angry too Sarah!

    2. Nathan makes me angry because of his behavior but even more so because I can't put my finger on him. I can't figure out why he can be so ignorantly devoted, why the scriptures' truth goes right through him without stopping.

    3. AND - to act like Orleanna was lusting after a flipping platter like it was another man! How ignorant!! She certainly wasn't over the moon about Anatole, she was just doing her part as a good wife to make a guest feel welcome!

  4. I've just finished the first two sections. I'll come back in the morning with a cup of coffee after the kids are off to school to write a few thoughts to your questions. Phew, what a story!

  5. Oh my. I am haunted by this story. I don't even know where to start so it's good you have some questions for us. I am going to try to keep from going crazy but I am finding I really need to talk to someone about this and my husband isn't too keen on it since it was such a hard read and even harder considering we are living and working together among a people (Native America) who have faced the same kinds of things the people of the Congo are experiencing in the book and we now live among the grandchildren and great grandchildren of people like these villagers. So it hits wayyyy home for me.

    1) I forgot how skillful a writer Kingsolver is. The way she unfolds the story a tiny bit at a time and often through the least likely narrator - I love that. To learn about the political unrest through Ruth May, for example, increases the feeling of confusion and cloudiness that we, the readers, experience and which is a parallel of how the other characters are all feeling about it as they learn more. I did not expect to feel such extreme sympathy, anger, and sorrow for Orleanna.

    2. FAvorite: I really love Orleanna but at the same time want to shake her til her teeth rattle in her head for staying with that man even before she was literally trapped in isolation in the Congo. I have some close personal family experience which I see in her situation (yet another reason this is a hard read for me, haaa). A wife/mother who is abused is WITHOUT question a victim but I wrestle with the fact that she also is culpable in the childen's abuse by inaction. In spite of all of that, I think my favorite is still Orleanna. Adah is a close second.

    3. Most like: Here I am at Orleanna again. I feel like she has a deep tenderness that Natha is trying to hard to crush out of her.I love her clear grasp of the insurmountable odds stacked up against the Congolese around her. She seems to see with striking clarity, almost from the start, the way into the hearts of the tribe even though she is disregarded and belittled over and over by That Man. (arg, can you sense my extreme anger at him???)
    It is a hard hard thing to raise children in a culture different from one's own, and the Prices have absolutely NO equipping (because of That Man's blind insistence and conniving to come when they really shouldn't have). I have a feeling Kingsolver has no positive feelings toward missionaries in general but I actually know for a fact that there is a different way when sharing the love of Jesus with another people group: but it takes unmeasurable humility and the ability to admit you don't have all the answers (even in matters of faith) and a willingness to see the way God has worked ahead of you by placing knowledge in the culture that points to Him. Nathan won't do that and now Orleanna is suffering the consequences. I am so fortunate to be in a completely different situation from them with a husband who couldn't be more unlike Nathan. It makes me thankful.

    1. (I had to break into two because I exceeded the comment limit. Oops. I hope you'll bear with me!)

      4. I love that Adah's not at all taken in by Nathan's charisma like Leah is (oh Leah is such a tragedy to me) and it saddens me to think that so far in her life the only representations of God's love to her are so completely opposite from the truth. She is brilliant. She seems to have figured out coping mechanisms to survive but she seems hard to me, like she's keeping the cynic at the front to protect her vulnerable places.

      5. I wish I was reading this in a college class with discussion about the symbolism in the book. I can sense that it is ripe with symbols - the garden, the parrot, the snakes, the river, the china platter. It is incredible; they don't at all take over the story or feel heavy-handed but fit exactly into the narrative. Amazing writing. I think I may have to make a chart or something and track some of the symbols to completion.

      6. Three things to Congo:
      My camera in a bag plus extra batteries and as many memory cards (I consider this a kit, can it count as one hanging around my neck? ha!)
      My Bible
      I can't decide between a sewing kit (practical!) and my journal (emotional well-being!!) I would make my daughter have a sewing kit tied to her waist and I'd carry my journal. There we go.

      Whew. Sorry it's so long. It would have taken way more work to try to be concise so I hope you don't mind this huge and heavy response.

    2. Very good thoughts! I think Orleanna is trapped in the cult that is her family and so I am sympathetic with her in that regard. Interesting that you feel that way about Leah, because I feel like she is most like me for so many reasons.

    3. I think Leah's tragedy is how trapped she is within her own need for her father's approval and we adult readers can see that she will never have it. I actually find Leah to be probably the most fascinating one to me the more I read. I think, like Orleanna, I want to protect her from him and from herself but I can't anymore than she can.

  6. OK - finally a few minutes and a large cup of coffee at my side.

    As a re-reader of this book I'm struck by a few things, mostly to do with me. I first read this probably 15-16 years ago before I had children. As I read, I feel a familiarity with the story, but have zero recollection of what is going to happen next. I think that the story did not resonate with me then as it does now. I remember enjoying it, but not being particularly moved by it. Now though a mother myself, the story takes on so much more import.

    My favourite character who also feels most like myself would be Orleanna. This was a hard question because I can't 100% relate to any of the characters. I'm an atheist, my husband is loving, I'm an average scholar and I'm past the stage of youth and immaturity of both Ruth May and Rachel. Orleanna feels the most real to me. She aches with the inability to provide what her daughters need. She tries to stand up to Nathan in her own way - in this generation, marriages and relationships were different. She would have seen few to no other options other than to follow his mandate. She is the victim. In all of our lives, we can probably point to a situation where we would act the same - to placate a boss, a parent, a spouse - to diffuse a loved one's temper. In my house, we take turns :-)

    I have a hard time with Adah. I love the language play, but don't know anyone who does this on a regular daily basis. I admire her absolute refusal to get on board mentally with the rest of the family and really chart her own course. Many of the things she says require a second or third reading until the import becomes clear and then Aha, you see where it's going. She is the most difficult character to figure out, so I guess that's a good thing.

    I'm enjoying the development of the book so far, and I know that by the end all of our questions will be answered (death of a girl, diamonds in the plane, when will they leave. etc) so no head scratching yet. Seriously though, I can't remember what happens so it's like a whole new book!

    3 things to take to the Congo for a year? I'm assuming my husband and two children are there with me, also that my glasses don't count because they're already like an appendage. I would take a well stocked medical kit that included enough meds for my kids and Advil for all, very intricate needlepoint kit on a tiny count linen that would take me a year to complete in normal circumstances, and a pair of scissors. I can't tell you how many times I forget my scissors and then I'm in the Congo with a stitching project and no scissors. That would be tragic.

    1. Very interesting commentary! I agree that we cannot truly sympathize with any of the characters but I am reminded, as you compare yourself to Orleanna, of the line that describes Nathan's faith as an armour and hers as more of a cloak or robe. I get the impression that she is thinking, "If this is Christian faith, I can leave it in Congo."

  7. 1. Surprising thing: I didn't realize the book was such a political statement and I was oblivious to the country's history until I did my research after I'd started the book. It makes much more sense, knowing about the wars that ravaged the place, when I read lines like, "Mama says their skin bears scars different from ours because their skin is a map of all the sorrows in their lives." Also, when Adah talks about how unique it is for her to be among handicapped peers, "Nobody cares that she's bad on one whole side, because they've all got their own handicap."

    2. Favorite character: I'm not sure that Ruth May is my favorite character in a spend-the-afternoon-together way but I really appreciate that, because of her youth, she can say things without any filter of appropriateness that comes with maturity. She just tells it like she sees it and so much of the information the reader depends on to build the story is available only because Ruth May is so open.

    3. Character most like me: Leah. While I see parts of Rachel in myself, I think on the whole I am very similar to Leah. I adore all the growing things. I have very fond memories of sharing my dad's garden with him and hours of not speaking, just weed pulling and being together. I have spent a great deal of my life hungry for attention and affirmation and I think Leah craves that from her dad. I also end up oft hurt because I see the best in people and often get sideswiped. I sincerely think that Leah is the only person in the book who is happy to be in the Congo. I love when she talks about how she cannot wait to be an old lady in the states again and tell all her friends of her adventures in the Congo.

  8. 4. Adah: At first I was taken aback by Adah's ability to describe what is going on around her so clearly and have such strong observations. But the more it goes on, I feel like her behavior is rooted in selfishness, wanting to control. She is hurt by the fact that she is seen as second rate when compared to others and her twin, so she intentionally withdraws. I feel like she is missing out on a lot of compassion that would be shown to her if she opened up. Relationships go both ways...

    5. Head scratching: I can never tell what is supposed to be symbolic or if I'm just reading into it too much. I thought it was very profound what Leah observed about the Mother May I game. She said, "This came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson." I felt like Leah is stating, plain as day, her father's problem. He knows the words in the Bible but hasn't any clue of the LESSON.

    6. Three things to the Congo: my seed box (I'll pollinate with a toothbrush if I have to), my toothbrush, as big a box of soap flakes as I could find. (Julian would bring all the really useful things, anyway: matches, bible, pillow)