Promising Start, Pitiful Finish

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Guest's review of Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible


“Promising Start, Pitiful Finish”

Written on: 31/01/2013

My thoughts on the book overall:

Kingsolver has a great writing style that is not easily lived up to. This is why I give The Poisonwood Bible two stars. The book feels very authentic for about the first 2/3rds and then drops wayyyyy off in quality. All of the characters suddenly become devices who are only around to teach the lesson of "white man bad, Black man good." They were doing a very good job of telling a different story up until the last third. The characteres go from fleshed out, living breathing people, to stiff wooden charactures of their former selves. Rachel and Nathan barely even act like humans anymore. (I know they are villains, but making them dumb as posts ruins the novel. Sorry to drag Star Wars into this but, The Emperor and Darth Vader are very well constructed villains. They are serious about controlling the galaxy and terrifingly efficient at doing so.)

The Poisonwood Bible is it's own world of much smaller scope but that is no excuse for bad writing. Let's look at the problem with Rachel's character.

Not suprisingly, from a modern perspective, she is blonde haired and blue eyed.

If her character is going to be authentically racist, she is going to be VERY mean during her and Leah's arguments. She is not going to invite her sister who has a Black husband and children to her hotel if she has a policy about not letting Blacks upstairs. She might mock her cruely: "You'll have to enter through the back just like the help. I am running a classy establishment after all."

Her beliefs will be something she has acquired over many years of being out of touch with the African struggle for freedom while being in touch with the white struggle for control. Rachel might say about the Lumumbists, "It doesn't matter how much you love them, Leah. They are still on the losing side of this war."

Her racism could also have been portrayed as a reflection of her high class decedance and resentment of poverty combined with a general dislike of Blacks.

Her critiques of Africans could have been scathing and soul wounding. (Rachel IS supposed to be a real racist, right? Not just a straw woman, right?) Rachel might have sneered at Leah during the car ride, on hearing of Anatole being in prison again, "You thatched your roof, you can't run out now that it is raining!"

Or, on the general state of Africa and white versus Black control, "Tell me again what they have accomplished that the white man hasn't done better? Every time you hand the Black man control of a developed country they drive it straight back into ruin. Geez, Leah. Look at the conditions YOU live in. For all your grand hopes and dreams you still have yet to improve your own circumstances."

This would make Leah's and Rachel's resentment of each other feel boiling hot and very real. Instead it feels like of a bit of dull preaching in place of what used to be a good story.

(The book hints at all of the above but ends up not daring to really see the world through Rachel's eyes. It instead makes her a "safe villain" i.e. Dumb blue eyed blonde who hardly bothers to think about a thing. The better to spare the reader's tender feelings; or Kingsolver's.)

The most noble characters are Black africans. It is a reverse of all the white supremacist pop culture of the pre 1960's US media.

The Theme:

The theme of this book goes from a fun adventure tale with the lesson: 'Be careful of harsh places you don't understand,' to a dull slog with the lesson: 'White Man Bad, Black Man Good!'

All the white people are either very evil, very stupid or very simple. The Black people, with only a few exceptions, are portrayed as naieve saints who are victims of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, white man. In The Poisonwood Bible's world, with one or two exceptions, Blacks are not capable of deciding to be evil without a white man showing them how to be evil first.

That's a very weird kind of racism which is all too prevalent in modern white Liberal society. It smacks of trying to be nice to a race that you feel is inferior to your own. Out of pity, you praise even its smallest successes or faintest hopes. It comes from the kind of white person who resents white racism and privledge on the surface, but would not be caught dead in the Black section of town.

Whites and Blacks alike, deserve better. Much better.

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