The Poisonwood Bible


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I'd heard of this book for a long time and was excited to read it, but once I'd started reading it, I wasn't sure why it was known to me and why anyone would want to read it.  I did enjoy the cute ways the young characters mix up English sayings, but without those little moments it is a very slow-going book.  They say things like "Mount Syanide" (pg. 26, instead of Sinai). There are five different narrators (4 sisters and their mom) so the book has a lot of repeat anecdotes from different viewpoints - interesting, but certainly not helping me get through the 500+ pages any faster.  I just don't quit books, so I kept on reading.  Ironically, that seems to be the motto of this book - don't give up. "You stick out your elbows, and hold yourself up." (pg. 518, loc. 7921)

This is the story of the Price family in the late 1950s and early 1960s who leave Georgia with their four children ages 5 - 15 and become missionaries in the Congo.  We hear from Mrs. Price (Orleanna, mother of 4 girls) at the beginning of each section, which are named for books of the Bible (Genesis, Revelations, Judges, etc.), as a post-Africa reflection, and then the girls tell us about Africa as if it were real time.  Orleanna is relatable as she worries for her girls and remembers the struggle of having three small children in a short time span.  One of the books is titled "Bel and the Serpent", which isn't a commonly known book of the Bible, but Wikipedia claims it falls into Chapter 14 of the Book of Daniel with the serpent being a Dragon.  Leah claims it comes "from the Apocrypha"  that her father believed was authentic but many "claim those books to be the work of fear-mongers who tagged them on to the Old Testament just to scare people." (pg. 328)

I started reading the hard back but found it hard on my eyes reading in bed at night so I also got the eBook and switched back and forth.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  1

Religion:  4

Gruesome:  3

Suspense:   1

Morality:  4

Traditional:  4

Sex - Scientific words used when a wife reflects on her husband's attitude regarding sex. (pg. 198)

Religion - Kids copy Bible verses as a form of punishment.  Minor reference to the story of Job (pg. 207-208) as well as other stories throughout.    A girl says the "Repentance Psalm" when she might have broken a commandment. Thoughts about how much God can see of one's daily life.  The "battle of the Bible verses". (pg. 250-253)  "Bravery and righteousness - those are two things that cannot go unrewarded in the sight of the Lord." (pg. 244)  After a tragedy, Leah recited many Psalms and Bible verses. (pg. 373) 

Gruesome - Boy eats baby birds right out of the nest. (pg. 114) "The dead beasts in our hands seemed to be cursing and mocking us for having killed them.  In the end we all crept home with our meat, feeling hunted ourselves." (pg. 354)  Severe illnesses and death of children.  Swarm of ants forcing a village to evacuate.

Suspense - There was very little that kept me wanting to turn pages.  Even with significant amounts of foreshadowing that usually encourages me to want to find out how a situation occurs, I was the least bit interested in finding out.  Early in the book you figure that one of the girls dies, but I'd have been just as satisfied reading a spoiler as reading it for myself.  I was vaguely interested in a vague romantic thread but also would have felt equally satisfied reading it in a spoiler.  (Normally I avoid spoilers at all costs.)

Morality - 
The morality increases when seen through Leah's eyes as she comes to understand the actions and motivations of the Congolese.

Traditional - Congolese natives walk around naked or nearly so.  Some men have multiple wives which is rather non-traditional in the western world but in the time and place of this novel it was the tradition.  There is a divorce that happens off the pages and some co-habitation before marriage but it is only giving a minor mention.

I found the words a little lumpy but there was an early opportunity to connect with the reader by sympathizing with  mother's plight, "...although it's been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences." (pg. 7) and also when Orleanna introduces herself to us as "mother of children living and dead." (pg. 7)

The girls provide humorous insight such as, "I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore." (pg. 29) or "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." (pg. 34)

Discussion Questions

The narrator tells us Orleanna "could lose everything", including, "you, her only secret." (pg. 6)  On the next page we read, "Those glassy museum stares have got nothing on you, my uncaptured favorite child, wild as the day is long.  Your bright eyes bear down on me without cease, on behalf of the quick and the dead."
What did you think the secret was?  

The girls told their mom she had no life of her own.  Orleanna says, "One has only a life of one's own."  (pg. 8) 
Which do you feel?

"Father feels makeup and nail polish are warning signals of prostitution, same as pierced ears." (pg. 16) 
Rachel painted her nails anyway.  What was forbidden in your house?  Why?  Did  you sneak it anyway?

Methuselah learned "damn" from Mrs. Price (pg. 65) and the girls covered for her. 
Do you have any personal parrot stories?

Orleanna describes how sometimes an unknown, unidentifiable scent will suddenly torment her with memories of Africa.  (pg. 87)  What scents transport you, and to where?

Orleanna tells us Africa has one of her children in its dirt. (pg. 87) Who did you think it was/would be?

"Nelson says..., if you run across two sticks in the shape of an X you have to hop over it backwards on your left foot." (pg. 145)  What superstitions did you hear growing up?

Leah reflected on items for her hope chest.  What did you have in your hope chest?  (pg. 148)

Brother Fowles proposed that translations have altered the true message of the Bible:
    All that foot washing, for example.  Was it really for God's glory, or just to keep the sand out of the house? 
   ...  'Oh, and the camel.  Was it a camel that could pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man? 
Or a coarse piece of yarn?  The Hebrew words are the same, but which one did they mean?  If it's a camel, the rich man might as well not even try.  But if it's the yarn, he might well succeed with a lot of effort, you see?'
(pg. 248)  What are your opinions on such examples?

If a missionary falls in love with one of the people, have they lost sight of the mission or found their true calling? 
(pg. 249)

When Leah told Anatole she loved him, he told her, "Don't ever say that again." (pg. 312)  Why?

Which member of the Price family best-learned the ways of Africa?  

How would the novel be different if we heard Mr. Price's point-of-view?  How would he have reported their life in Africa?

Orleanna shifted her guilt by thinking about what "trivial thing" she was doing while the politicians "divided the map" regarding Africa.  (pg. 318)  Have you ever felt guilty about something even though you were not directly involved?  How did you handle your feelings?

Do you believe in a punishing God?  Leah thinks "Each bad thing causes something worse." (pg. 327)  Anatole says, "If you look hard enough you can always see reasons..." (pg. 327)  Leah decides, "God doesn't need to punish us.  He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." (pg. 327)

After his daughter's death, Rev. Price "moved around the circle baptizing each child in turn."  (pg. 376) 
How did he reconcile their baptisms since they didn't have a true understanding of what he was saying? 
Did he really help them by baptizing them?

In regards to why she stayed so long, Orleanna wonders what the reader will call her sin: "Complicity?  Loyalty?  Stupefaction?  How can you tell the difference?  Is [her] sin a failure of virtue, or of competence?" (pg. 383)

Orleanna said she "knew Rome was burning, but I had just enough water to scrub the floor, so I did what I could."  (pg. 383)  Describe a time when you were overwhelmed and felt better by doing a normal, routine, repetitive and perhaps trivial action.

Orleanna suggests that old women are like another country, they "married with simple hopes: enough to eat and children who might outlive us." (pg. 383)  What do women today hope for in marriage?  Which outlook is better?

A repeated theme throughout the novel is "To live is to change..." (pg. 386) 
How can you apply this theme to your life?

Rev. Price did not follow after his family.  Leah, during a rain storm, remembered Anatole saying "You must not run out of your house if it rains."  (pg. 393)  According to that advice, were Reverend Price's actions (or inaction) justified?

Leah wondered how she could follow her mother out of Africa after what they'd done.  But she also wondered how she could stay.  (pg. 394, loc. 5910)  Did she need to feel so conflicted?

Leah felt like God must not be present in Africa because if He was, "he is bitterly mocking the hope of brotherly love.  He is making sure that color will matter forever." (pg. 421, loc. 6354)  How do you reconcile your faith with the tragedies of the world?  What would you say to help Leah see God in all things?

Have you ever worked with, or otherwise had, a personal understanding of people whose "whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people." (pg. 437, loc. 6594)

Leah is eventually able to understand the Congolese bartering system, and even admires them for it.  (pg. 452 - 453)  Have you ever been in a culture that bartered in a way that initially seemed rude to you?

When thinking of the globe she made for Anatole, Leah reflects that, "We are all still the children we were, with plans we keep secret, even from ourselves." (pg. 504, loc. 7767)  What childhood plans are you still hiding within yourself?

Rachel is quite content with her accomplishments:  Not to boast, but I have created my own domain.  I call the shots.  There may be a few little faults in the plumbing and minor discrepancies among the staff, but I'm very confident of my service.  I have a little sign in every room telling guests they are expected to complain at the office between the hours of nine and eleven A.M. daily.  And do I hear a peep?  No.  I run a tight ship.  That is one thing I have to be proud of.  And number two, I'm making a killing. (pg. 511, loc. 7830)
Do you  believe that The Equatorial was as successful and grand as Rachel makes it out to be?

Rachel finds irony in her father taking them to the jungle to save the children when he wound up losing his own. 
She said, "You can't just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back."  She reasons that people who expect to go to Africa and change it should think again because, "If it was as easy as they thought it was going to be, why, they'd be done by now, and Africa would look just like America with more palm trees.  Instead, most of it still looks exactly how it did a zillion years ago.  Whereas, if you think about it, the Africans are running all over America right now, having riots for their civil rights and predominating the sports and popular-music industries." (pg. 515, locs. 7892 & 7898)  How much do you agree with Rachel?

What does Leah mean when she says "time erases whiteness altogether". (pg. 526, loc. 8048)

Theme Ideas

Decorate:

Serve: 

Playlist:
  • Bingo, Bango, Bongo as referenced in the political cartoon of Khrushchev (pg. 161)
  • Hush, Little Baby like Ruth May remembered her mother singing. (pg. 303)
  • "Deck the Halls" like Rachel sang during the warm Christmas season. (pg. 424, loc. 6400)
  • "Big Girls Don't Cry" by The Four Seasons like when Rachel slow-danced with Daniel (pg 427, loc. 6443)
  • Play old episodes of "Dick Clark and the American Bandstand" like Rachel enjoyed watching. (pg. 512, loc. 7837)
  • "Roll Out the Barrel" like when Rachel returned to the hotel to find that the German guests had inebriated her two vervet monkeys. (pg. 514, loc. 7879)
  • "old, dark gullah hymns" like Adah and her mother listened to. (pg. 530, loc. 8112)

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