Have you ever read a book, written by someone you have never known and who has never known you, and who in all likelihood will never even know you exist . . . . . and have that book resonate deeply within your soul? There have been a few books like that in my life, but the most recent one (although I must admit that I first read this book about 15 years ago and decided that it was time to read it again just last week) is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
The depth with which the characters truly express the haunting memories in my own heart and mind gave me hope, once again, that the human spirit can suffer great indignity and finally discover the strength within to walk away. The damage is done, no doubt, but whether one is telling the story of a broken nation as in The Poisonwood Bible which tells the story of the political turmoil in the Congo during the 1960s, or telling the story of a broken family, there is fear, courage, pain, and eventual redemption. This book follows the lives of a Baptist missionary family who went (apparently without the “blessing” of the sending mission agency) into the Belgian Congo to “save Africa for Jesus” just prior to the turmoil of the independence movement in that nation in the early 1960s. From their father’s attempts (“Our Father”) to plant a garden in the jungle, thinking he would raise sweet corn and potatoes just like back home, to his attempts to baptize the native Congolese people of their village in the crocodile-infested river that flowed past their hut, this missionary family faced one challenge after another.
Not only did Our Father ignore the warnings of Mama Tataba about trying to plant a garden among the dangerous Poisonwood plants (which gave Our Father days on end of agonizing hives when he kept right on working in that thorn invested jungle plot), but many of the villagers were terrified of his admonition to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb” in the Kwilu River where crocs had previously consumed a few of the native children.
All the while, the background rumble of political turmoil and upheaval gradually reaches the village of Kilanga and begins to affect the lives of native Congolese and Baptist missionary alike.
Perhaps the author did not intend for the story to speak too loudly of the injustices perpetuated throughout history by “religious” people on those who are outside of their comfort zone; or perhaps the intention was not necessarily to tell a story of a woman who finally can no longer remain silent while her children’s lives are in danger at the hands of Our Father . . . . perhaps it was primarily a story of the history of the African nation of Congo . . . but to me, it spoke of life and death in the plain-spoken words of of a mother:
“The substance of grief is not imaginary. Its as real as rope or the absence of air, and like both those things it can kill. My body understood there was no safe place for me to be. “
The history of the nation of the Congo (now Zaire) is a fascinating study in a people striving for national identity and independence, and the forces that align both in support of and in opposition to this struggle. The Poisonwood Bible tells that story through the eyes for four daughters and a mother, as those historical events ran parallel to their own struggle for survival, hope, and redemption.
This was one of those most meaningful stories in my life as the voices of those women touched the hidden wounds in my soul. It would not perhaps be as meaningful to others, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of missions in Africa, the struggle of the African people, or the silent pain that is endured by generations of women in the name of “ministry.”