The Rebel Girl: Barbara Kingsolver’s Triumph

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Catherine Sameh

IT IS A distinct pleasure to witness a favorite novelist become an even better storyteller, without losing her politics. Such is the case with Barbara Kingsolver and her new novel The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), arguably her strongest work yet, the story of the Price family commandeered by the evangelical Reverend Nathan Price.

In 1959 Nathan uproots his wife Orleanna and their four daughters Adah, Leah, Ruth May and Rachel from the American South and drags them to the middle of the Belgian Congo, where they attempt to carve out a life in the village of Kingala.

As a white middle-class American family in the late 1950s, the Prices have no less than a disastrous time adjusting. While the Rev. Price is bent on bringing Christianity to the villagers and dominating his family, his wife tries to make a home for herself and her daughters.

Both Christianity and the Prices’ notion of home are deeply challenged by the villagers of Kingala and life in the Congo, as the story unfolds through the narration of each daughter.

Rachel is the oldest, an American teenager preoccupied with the superficial world of clothes and beauty. Kingsolver uses Rachel to represent the worst of middle-class American characteristics&#8212small-mindedness and self-absorption&#8212and the values of materialism and colonialism.

Of the four daughters Rachel struggles the most in her new surroundings, finally as an adult moving to South Africa where she can remain a permanent colonialist. Ruth May is the youngest, and through her eyes&#8212and those of the trained biologist Kingsolver&#8212we experience the beautiful, deadly and diverse natural world of Africa.

Adah, one half of a set of twins, is physically disabled but brilliant. Adah does not speak, but plays with language with the command of a trained linguist. Her physical impairments leave her an outsider within her own family, and for comfort and company Adah dissects and rebuilds words. Through her we see how rich and multiple words and worlds can be, and how connected all languages are.

Leah Price, Adah’s twin, is the soul of the novel. When we meet her she is still devoted to her father, and almost as scholarly as he when it comes to quoting the Bible. She is a natural seeker and practitioner of justice, bright and tender.

More than any other family member, Leah adapts to her new home by making friends with the villagers, participating in village life and working hard to mitigate her family’s colonial presence. Naturally, her blind filial devotion is shattered the longer she lives in the Congo, and as she comes into her own as a young woman.

The Congo’s independence struggle runs parallel to Leah’s own independence. As she challenges her father’s patriarchal rule, his racist and imperialist Christianity and his sexist treatment of his wife and daughters, so the Congolese independence movement throws off colonial rule and ushers in its first democratic president&#8212Patrice Lumumba.

Anti-colonial and liberation struggles are certainly not new themes for Kingsolver. In The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, she explored the Central American and solidarity movements, and in Pigs in Heaven, the tension between Native American tribal culture and non-Native service agencies with colonialist policies.

In The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver delves even further into the devastating effects of colonial rule, and implicates various U.S. governments’ involvement. We follow the U.S.-backed coup that murdered Lumumba and installed Mobutu.

Leah marries a Lumumba supporter, who is imprisoned by the Mobutu regime. The Congo becomes Zaire, the Price daughters grow up, and we are taken through three more decades of African politics. While the last third of the novel is a hurried attempt to bring this 500-plus pages epic to a close, Kingsolver’s writing has never been more powerful and compelling.

Although space prevents me from a meatier review, I hope I’ve piqued your interest. For lefties hungry for the fusion of political history with poetic storytelling, The Poisonwood Bible should be your next choice.

ATC 78, January-February 1999