Barbara Kingsolver’s novel called The Poisonwood Bible beautifully illustrates the lessons learned in a journey that is both physical and metaphysical. As this family travels from Bethlehem, Georgia to the Congo, Africa in order for Nathan, the father, to become a missionary, they each take their own journey of gargantuan proportions. As each character takes very different ideas out of their experiences in Africa, the reader too, is able to experience Africa from the vantage point of multiple narrators. Kingsolver asks the reader from the very beginning to take the journey with this family.
“Oh, but I know better and so do you…Take your place then. look at what happened from every side and consider all the ways it could have gone” (Kingsolver 8). In an interview from Book Page, Kingsolver offers some explanation for looking at history. “We can never know, never look at history with anything but a narrow and distorted window,” says the author. We can never know the whole truth, only what’s been recorded for us and what our cultural and political predisposition understands. Leah says history is never much more than a mirror we can tilt to look at ourselves” (Kanner).
Many members journey from Georgia to the Congo and from ignorance to understanding. In the first section called “The Things They Carried,” Kingsolver shows the characters packing all the necessary things that they carry into the Congo on this journey. They hide objects in their waistbands that they can’t live without, like band-aids, scissors, cake mixes, and more. The cake solidifies before they are even able to attempts to use it. Before they even get there, Leah realizes these objects weigh her down. What hey realize is that they don’t “need” any of the objects they brought with them, and that our concept of need is warped by our culture.
These possessions stand out against the items of the Congo. The demonstration garden is a symbol that shows many characteristics of this journey of ignorance and understanding. Nathan’s purpose in the demonstration garden is to show the Congolese agricultural techniques. This garden is symbolic of the attitude that the family carries into the Congo. they believe that their way is superior and Africans are hopelessly backward. However, the plants that they bring are inappropriate to Africa as are the attitudes of the family.
The plants are useless; they bear no fruit just like the attitudes of the family. When Mama Tataba tries to advise Nathan, he cannot heed her advice because he believes the Congolese are so backward that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. It never occurs to him that there are reasons other than “backwardness” as to why there is no agriculture in Kilanga. The journey continues as more attitudes change throughout the course of the novel. Adah believes that it is so terrible that so many children and adults die in Africa of things we can cure.
So people like her have brought medicines and inoculations. However, this leads to overpopulation and food shortages and more. Another lesson the family learns on this journey is that human beings cannot change the balance of nature. Nature always finds a way to retain its own balance. Not all characters succeed in taking the journey. Nathan Price never “sees the light” of his journey. He arrogantly believes that he can change these ancient traditions to his own, and this would be for the betterment of everyone. His way of life is simply superior, but he is blind in so many ways.
He actually is physically almost-blind in one eye because of an old war wound. He is figuratively blind to anyone outside his own version of his divine mission. He then loses sight temporally by ignoring Mama’s advice about the poisonwood tree. Kingsolver ultimately longs for the reader to make this journey as well, a journey to explore what really happened in the Congo. She wants the reader to question what we did in the Congo and how we respond to its destruction. This is why we hear the story from five different narrators. There is no right answer; there is only the journey of exploring the possibilities.
Orleana is paralyzed at the end of the book. Rachel refuses to accept any part. Leah becomes an activist, attempting to right the wrongs of the world. Adah responds with science, wanting to figure out and understand her world. What this family’s ultimate “journey” becomes is one of arrogance and superiority to one of understanding and open-mindedness. “We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters.
Now you laugh, day and night, while you gnaw on my bones. But what else could we have thought? Only that it began and ended with us. What do we know, even now? Ask the children. Look at what they grew up to be. We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away” (Kingsolver 10) Works Cited Kanner, Ellen, Barbara Kingsolver turns to her past to understand the present. 1998 Retrieved June 3, 2007. from First Person Book Page site http://www. bookpage. com/9811bp/barbara_kingsolver. html Kingsolver. Barbara, The Poisonwood Bible. HarperCollins, Canada. 2005.
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