Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Poisonwood Bible ... Finally

Last summer, I came up with an "I'll Thank Me Later" List -- a collection of books I have always meant to read but perpetually put off beginning (even knowing how likely I am to love them).

In hindsight, I should have named it the "I'll Thank Myself Later" List, but too late now.

In 2015, I managed to read two books on the list and, no surprise, loved them both.  I wrote about Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (!!!!!!!!!) in my 2015 Reading Highlights post.

Back in 1998 when it was a new release, I purchased Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible from the now-defunct Quality Paperback Club.  The book later became an Oprah selection and a title that several trusted reader friends highly recommended.  And yet, I never felt like reading it.  I never considered placing it in a donation box and, in fact, moved it to five different addresses.  I never assumed it wouldn't be good.  I just never opened it, not even after reading and loving Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer a few years after buying Poisonwood Bible.

About five years ago, I bought the audiobook edition of Poisonwood Bible during an sale.  I downloaded it to my little green ipod right away and then never pressed play.  It never seemed to be the right moment for fifteen hours of missionaries and Africa and that book with the dust-colored cover. 

As happens with my book listening, I reached the end of one of the new releases on which I usually spend my monthly credits and was at a loss for my next listen.  I scrolled down to Poisonwood Bible and, just like that, pressed play.  Five minutes in, I was hooked.  Out of never-land and into the Congo.

Poisonwood Bible is an amazing novel.  The story of a Baptist preacher from Georgia who brings his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959 (despite being discouraged from doing so) is less about this bullheaded, misguided man and more about the daughters and wife who came to understand more about Africa than he ever could.  The tale is told in alternate chapters by each of the family's four daughters with a few reflections from their mother.

Barbara Kingsolver's writing is as exquisite as ever.  I loved how she captured Rachel's voice and personality with her confident ignorance, surprising wisdom, and comical vocabulary.  I marveled at the wordplay and poetry interspersed in Adah's chapters.  The honesty of Ruth May's chapters, the steadiness of Leah's, and the relentlessness of Orleanna's.  It's all perfection.

To say that I learned more about Africa and the political history of the Congo is an understatement.  I am ashamed of all I never knew or even considered.  I assumed the book would be more of an indictment of the missionary impulse, but Nathan Price's failings and blindspots need no belaboring.  He's got it wrong, and we know it.  The book is the "now what" of the family who had to come with him.*

I am so glad that I finally read this book, but I honestly don't wish I had read it earlier.  I am 41 now and a mother and, I like to think, wiser than I was at 23 or 33 or any other age in which I might have read this book.  I appreciated this book more today than I would have in 1998, that's for sure.

I have a stack of new releases waiting for me so I probably won't circle back to the "I'll Thank Me Later" List again until Fall, but I will return to it.  I'm batting three for three on that list right now.

Audiobook note:  Dean Robertson is the perfect narrator for Poisonwood Bible.  I was disappointed to read this interview with her where she's kind of dismissive of audiobooks.  She admits she doesn't listen to them so I will just assume she doesn't realize their power or her own talent for reading them.  Thanks for bringing Poisonwood Bible to life for me, Dean Robertson! 

What books are on your "I'll Thank Me Later" List?  I'd love to know.

*A strange coincidence is that at mass on Saturday evening, when I was almost two-thirds of the way through the book, the priest mentioned missionaries in his homily.  He talked about how the revised thinking about missionary work is that missionaries now go to a place assuming God is already there and affirming the ways God is already present and working in that community.  Reverent Nathan Price missed the boat there. 

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