Monday, August 31, 2009

An Open Discussion::The Poisonwood Bible

Last week I mentioned that I was finishing up reading The Poisonwood Bible and while I love it, I just don't know if I could write about it here. At almost 550 pages, there is a lot that goes on in this book and to put it bluntly, I don't feel as if my book reviewing skills are up to the challenge. But there is so much about the book that I would like to talk about, and some of you expressed some interest in "talking" about it with me. So I thought it might be fun to discuss it as if we were at a book club meeting. Here's how it's going to work:

I'll start the discussion out with a few questions or topics for conversation. These may be my own opinions or questions, or they may be taken from somewhere else, in which case I'll specifically note where I got it from. When you comment, you can choose to either address one of those topics/questions, or just go off on a complete tangent of your own and say whatever you want pertaining to the book. Did you love it? Hate it? Read one chapter and give up? Have no interest in reading it at all? Whatever the case may be, I want to know why. As the conversation progresses, as I'm hoping it does, I would love it if you would check back within the following days, possibly commenting again addressing someone else's opinion. You know, like a conversation at a book club meeting.

If you haven't read The Poisonwood Bible and may want to, keep in mind that there is a distinct possibility that certain details about the book will be revealed within our discussion. So proceed with caution. Also, as you know I welcome dissenting opinions. In fact, I love them, but lets keep it nice. I think that this book in particular has the potential to cause a political discussion, which I'm fine with, but let's just be respectful. If this goes well, as I'm hoping it does, maybe we'll do it again sometime. (Am I putting too much pressure on you people?)

Let the fun begin!

*Did you enjoy this book? Why or why not?

*When I was reading reviews of this book on Goodreads, a lot of the readers who hated the book felt that Kingsolver had a political agenda that she was trying to push, particularly her views on Americas involvement in the Congo, or they felt as if she was being anti-Christian. While I understand these opinions, I just don't feel the same way. Possibly I'm naive, or maybe it's because I have some of the same beliefs as Kingsolver, but whatever the case, no political or religious message really jumped out at me. Obviously the book is very political, but when reading it, I focused mainly on the family members and how their relationships disintegrated over time. What are your thoughts? Do you feel that Barabara Kingsolver "manipulated her characters" to further her own beliefs?

*Ruth May, the youngest daughter in the Price family, dies by a snake bite. This event seems to be the final straw for the mother (Orleana) and it motivates her to get her daughters out of the village. Personally, I felt so many emotions when Ruth May died because she reminded me so much of my own daughter. I was angry at Orleana for not putting her foot down sooner and protecting her daughters. I hated the father (Nathan Price) even more than before for maintaining his (as I see it) foolish belief that this was all god's plan. Who, if anyone, do you blame for the death of Ruth May?

*To go along with the previous question, How much do you blame Orleana for everything that went on in the Congo? Do you believe that considering the time in history the book took place, and her own personal circumstances, that she did everything in her power and that she, like her daughters, was a victim? How would you have handled things differently?

*Leah ends up marrying Anatole, a school teacher from the village, and they have children. They spend some time in America only to return to Africa because America just doesn't feel like home to them and they feel out of place. Once in Africa, they deal with inadequate health care, food is at times scarce, and Anatole is unjustly prisoned, yet they stay. I thought that Leah was one of the more complex and likable characters, but I felt her decision to return to Africa was a huge mistake and a very selfish move. I believe that, even though her motives were different, this decision was not unlike the one her father made when he moved his family to the Congo. Any thoughts on this?

*Why do you suppose that Reverend Nathan Price is not given a voice of his own? Do we learn from his wife and daughters enough information to formulate an adequate explanation for his beliefs and behavior? Does such an explanation matter? (Question courtesy of Book Browse Reading Guide.)

21 comments:

Nowheymama said...

I ended up frustrated with almost all of the characters by the end.

One of the women in my former book club is the child of missionaries and thought that this book was taking a swipe at all missionaries. I disagree--it's fiction. I don't think novels about lawyers are meant to represent ALL lawyers, for example.

Tammie said...

i agree with you on both counts. i was disappointed that Rachel stayed so selfish and self involved her whole life. i found her very frustrating. she could never see beyond her own wants.

in reading reviews, i saw a lot of that same sentiment. it bothered me that everyone who disliked the book, took it personally.

Aleta said...

Whew.... I read that book about 6 years ago. I couldn't put it down but I almost couldn't stand to read it (yes, I did though)... There was so much in the book, a lot of pain and anger and disfunction. It might have been political, but I didn't read it as such. I thought it was excellent and reading your post, brought it all back up again. Thanks and I look forward to more of your questions and how you answer them.

Tammie said...

i felt the same way! i hated reading it. mine is a library copy so i sort of had to set aside time everyday to read it so i could get it back in time, but it was a struggle. jay says he can always tell when im reading a sad or dark book because my mood changes. this book left me in a dark place for a while.

about the political bent: thats how i saw it too. it really wasnt until i read other peoples strong reactions to the book that i realized it may be more political than i at first thought.

kraftykash said...

I didnt red this book, so I skipped everything after the questions. I need to go to the library. Im in "stuck" stage when it comes to reading. We are so busy catching up after being sick.

hester said...

Tammie - this was a great book review post. (Were you a literature professor in another life?)

I read this years ago before having children so am a little hazy on details and would probably find it even more heartbreaking now. I thought if there was a moral/political message it was maybe one against extremism of any kind, not just christian missionary zeal, that blinds people to what's important - love, family, compassion etc.

Daphne said...

OK. Let's see. I definitely liked the book a LOT, although it wasn't an easy read. I read it probably about 9 years ago so my memory is fuzzy, but I was stranded at a Denver airport and had nothing else to read, so I read it in one fell swoop (about 7 or 8 hours) and maybe that's the best way to read it -- get in, then get out.

I guess I can see a political agenda when I step back, but I always get annoyed when people try really hard to say an author meant this or that (or was pushing this or that agenda) when clearly the agenda is sort of backdrop to the main story: that of this family, in an impossible situation, with the head of the family losing his mind. All those young kids in the Congo forest? That would be enough to make any mother frantic (I would think). I felt that was the real story: this *particular* family in this * particular* situation, and the mother trying to figure out what to do given the time, place, and the culture she was raised in.

I don't remember much about the snake bite except that I was profoundly saddened by it because I loved Ruth May. I don't remember feeling blame towards anyone, because I guess you have to accept if you're living in the jungle with poisonous snakes, this could happen. Obviously a tragedy, but the family (right or wrong) chose to be there. I did find the passage of Ruth May as the snake to be very moving and mystical. Although tragic, I felt like this was one of the strongest parts of the book (the whole snakebite thing, and also the ants).

I got frustrated with Orleana, but I also understood that she was operating within the culture she knew. It takes enormous strength to buck your home culture. Clearly the situation was going from bad to worse -- I know what *I* would have done, but Orleana? I don't know. She was in a bad spot and was in the middle of figuring out her own feelings about all this, when tragedy pushed her into action (from what I remember).

I don't remember the part about Leah at all...

As for Nathan not having a voice of his own, I liked very much that this was a book written from the female point of view. He had too much to say already, and probably was not given to self-reflection. Call me a modern-day feminist, but I tend to think women are far more interesting than men (generally speaking) anyway. Especially in a situation like this, where your ego-maniac husband is driving this crazy train and you're left to try and make it all work.

You know -- I think this might be my only Barbara Kingsolver read. All the rest of her books have left me cold when I try to pick them up. I might have to try another one again.

Great discussion! And fantastic questions (you underestimate yourself).

Tammie said...

kashoan: i highly suggest this book. although it isnt an easy read, its worth it.

hester: thank you! :) im sure you'd find it much harder to read now.
and when it comes down to it, that was the ultimate message i took away from it too.nathan price's unfettered zeal to make christians of everyone in the village, blinded him to what was going on in his own family. he completely sacrificed them.

daphne: i was seriously annoyed at all the reviewers who claimed she was pushing an agenda. after i read the book i searched high and low for an honest review by someone who just didnt like the book, but everywhere i turned, i was hit with people screaming politics. some even went so far as to say things like, "if you want to read an ACCURATE depiction of missionary work in the Congo, then read such and such." i dont want to read an accurate depiction. i wanted to read this fictional one. it was very frustrating.

i was so sad when Ruth May died. not only because she reminded me of my kid, but i genuinely missed her "voice" in the book. i understand that Orleana was sort of stuck and didnt feel like she had a lot of options, but i hated that someone had to die before she was moved to action. but i was also impressed with how quickly she acted after Ruth Mays death. it seemed like one moment she was grieving and the next moment she was gathering her remaining daughters and getting out. it was as if she had come to her senses.

the ants! i think that is one of the most memorable parts of the book for me. the language kingsolver used was so lush and descriptive i could picture it all so clearly and i found it terrifying.

i didnt miss nathan not having a chapter or two either. frankly i hated him and i just didnt care about what he had to say.

(I really liked Animal Vegetable Miracle...but this is the first time ive read any of her novels. Im thinking i may want to read more, but next up i need something a bit lighter i think.)

Karen said...

Do you think this would be decent on audiobook? Also, is it depressing?

Tammie said...

i really dont know if it would be a good audiobook. one of the daughters sometimes recites things backwards and i dont know how that would translate to an audiobook.
and yeah, its pretty depressing. even the ending isnt really happy.

Bridge said...

If I remember correctly I remember thinking a lot about Ruth May's death as a terrible result of circumstances. While staying was hard and desperate-leaving was even harder.

I never struggled with Orleana as a character, I felt great sadness for her and certainly placed her in a historical and social context.

I think the point you make about Nathan is a good one, one I never considered.

Makes me want to read this novel again, it was one of my favorites!

P.S. Kingsolver is a very political woman! There is an agenda in her writing, very subtle and very insightful. She was named the 74th person on a list naming those screwing up America by conservative Bernard Goldberg.

hester said...

The ant part stayed with me also. It was terrifying.

Tammie...what was the name of the daughter who spoke backwards? I found it annoying at first but then the individuality of the characters really grew on me.

for anyone interested in reading another or her novels...my other favourite Kingsolver book was "Prodigal Summer". It was beautifully written.

Tammie said...

hester: that was adah, leahs twin. when i first started out reading the book i thought "oh wow. this backwards talk is going to get annoying real quick." but after just a chapter or two, it grew on me and i started finding it strangely poetic.

i may have to look up prodigal summer.

bridge: do you feel that, if you didnt have the same beliefs as kingsolver, that the politics in the book would have gotten in the way of you enjoying it? i felt like the political message was so subtle that it didnt change how i felt about the book either way.

i had issues with Orleana. on the one hand, i felt incredibly sorry for her and i do feel like Nathan was abusive on many levels, and he kept her trapped.

but i also wished she had gotten her family out sooner. i really had to keep reminding myself to put her in a certain historical context or id find myself getting very mad at her.
ultimately, i did see her as a victim, but maybe a victim with more power to change things than she was initially aware of.

Daphne said...

While I *know* Kingsolver is highly political, frankly the thought that she was pushing any agenda through this book would never have occurred to me. I thought it was probably some sort of commentary on asshole Christian male missionaries (not too hard to comment upon, in my opinion), but mostly I thought it was the women's story.

I loved Adah -- I thought her sections were poetic as well.

I think the ants were my favorite part. I also liked the snake imagery, before and after Ruth May. The act was tragic, but the imagery and language was beautiful.

I may have to look up Prodigal Summer as well. We have The Bean Trees floating around at home and I have no desire to read it.

Tammie said...

daphne: i feel the same way. i never picked up on any agenda until after finishing the book and reading other reviews. i seriously doubt i would have ever noticed it on my own.

also, the last section of the book, The Eyes in the Trees, who is the 'voice' of that section? Is it Ruth Mays spirit? Is it her spirit as a snake? Is it just some random narrator? I remember earlier in the book there being a small bit of foreshadowing about Ruth May living in the trees like a snake so thats sort of how i saw that last section.

I found that section very beautiful, yet confusing.

Daphne said...

I had the same feeling -- I felt it was Ruth May as the snake, and I thought it was very beautiful and kind of confusing. However, it really struck me as something extremely beautiful and moving.

Great idea for comments discussion!!

Mari said...

Tammie, I read this a really long time ago, but here is what I remember: I cried all the way through the book, and I was really pissed off at these parents for not protecting their children. Who takes their children to that type of dangerous scenario? Unforgiveable.

Tammie said...

daphne: thanks! i think this discussion was a lot of fun. (i guess we're nerds ;)
im glad i wasnt the only one that found the last section confusing. i actually re-read it a few times trying to grasp it better.

mari: i know. there were parts that were really hard for me to get through.

hester said...

I definitely want to reread it now. I don't remember the last section with the snake's voice but it sounds fascinating. Thanks for a great discussion, Tammie.

scootie said...

I listened to this as an audiobook several yrs ago and it was FANTASTIC!! I truly can't imagine doing this book any other way. I ferry kids around all day long all week long, so I had more listening time than I originally thought I would.

I was horrified when Ruth May died. I still remember that Orlean said that she smelled the sweat in her elbows and I want to cry all over again.

I also remember all these yrs latter Orleana bringing the cake mixes over so that she could make cakes and how horribly it turned out.

This is one of those books that have "stayed with me" over many yrs.

Tammie said...

scootie: oh i forgot about the cake mixes! but yes, it's stayed with me too. sometimes i find myself thinking about certain parts. most recently, the ants scene. i just imagine a sea of ants and i cant get it out of my head.