Episode 45 - The Poisonwood Bible: The Line-Work Therein


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I've been thinking a lot lately about the loves that burn brightly but only for a moment. One off moments whose magic is awe-inspiring and reflexively brings you to your knees but will burn out before it can do too much in the way of damage.  Mostly, this has come up in a personal context. Dating yes but also dating-ish. Happens to a lot of people, I'd imagine. I mean we're getting close to eight billion people on the planet. I think I've got pretty good odds. But on the other hand, it's more than just the odds.

With so many people comes so many different lives in the present and trajectories for them to be hurdled down later. Sometimes incompatibility is inevitable, not in the moment but just down the way. However, the figurative heart is as nearsighted as they come. And you might find yourself falling in love at an inconvenient time with a seemingly non-ideal target. Forget the poetry. You know it as an age-old love story: beautiful to hear but surprisingly simple when lived. Simple but still painful.

You might rationally know that you can't make it work with someone long term. The list of things you want from life is just too different from theirs for that to be possible. But all the same, you are struck by the beauty of their movements, the dulcet tones of their voice, and the warmth of their soul.

            It’s not that love depends on context, though in the right light and in certain ways it does. It’s that people’s lives when considered in pairs could be thought of as intersecting lines. They meet once and then diverge, never to meet again. Not to diminish the power and beauty of that intersection. Even the briefest relationships can be grand when handled with careful hands.

            All the while, the countdown clock seemingly lingers overhead, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean, you can savor the moment. But that’s a limited solution.

            It’s not just with people. People only carry higher stakes. In my experience, this also happens with books.

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            We wouldn’t think context would matter for books, though. They can be our dearest companions, and when they are, as we are with the different connections in our lives, we want to believe they are enduring if not outright immortal, saving us from the trial of grief or impending grief. Or it’s a way of exerting a sense of control in our lives that we could never actually have.

            But I would say those are all just delusions. It never works out that way. Either with people or with books.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 45.

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            Today, I want to talk about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s the story of a missionary family who moved to the Belgian Congo in 1959 to do what all missionaries want to do. But it’s not something that is as straightforward as we are inclined to imagine. I mean the musical called The Book of Mormon kind of, sort of goes into it. But also not. Because it’s not as funny as that musical would suggest.

            Now there is an absurd, unexpected nature to such an existence that Kingsolver captures well in this large tome, across the many chapters narrated by the mother and her four daughters. That’s pretty much the entire family taking turns telling this story except for the missionary himself who could fairly be called far too driven in his mission to even consider relaying a story to a hypothetical audience.

But here’s the thing, even if you don’t support the idea of missionary work, you should still be comfortable admitting that it’s hard for the family of the missionary, who often had—and likely still have—little to no say in this next era of their lives. Or at least, that’s what the Prices get. The women of the Price family get dragged into a world that they don’t understand for the sake of a message the local people largely do not want to hear.

            Not that Nathan Price would ever listen to any of that. Instead, he tries to organize a baptism in a river known to be crocodile infested. (Pause). Yeah, he’s definitely got to shoulder some blame for this whole mission thing not working out, but good luck convincing him of that.

            Nathan’s story is irritating. The Belgian Congo is caught in a time of transition, and there’s something very clearly tragic in what came before and the shaky grounds it left the country in. But perhaps there’s some relief in knowing that this is not their story, though all narratives are intertwined, but the story of the Price women. The Price women, who are far less set in their ways and start to adapt, finding their own paths at this juncture in the family’s stories. For the most part. But don’t worry about that caveat now.

            The story is well executed, undoubtedly. But I think the beauty comes from the way the Price women grow from not isolating themselves in an unfamiliar area but from leaning into the interconnectedness of the world and the way their story will be forever influenced by this time in their life and the people they become shaped by the village they had been sent to.

            All of that truly makes for a noteworthy book. One that could be read over and over again. The best book ever is probably what I did try to say. Or at least, that’s what I thought in high school.

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            In my senior year of high school, our honors English class was actually an AP class. And yes, I will explain that if you don’t know what that is. In this context, AP stands for advanced placement, so yes, it is like honors courses, but the College Board—the same company that runs the SAT program—is involved with AP classes. The College Board offers students the chance to take an exam at the end of the year that will prove to universities that they mastered the material at a university level to potentially receive credits for general education courses before they start university.

            Each university and each department within a university has their own rules on what credits they will accept and which ones they won’t. For example, there might be an AP government course, but if you’re a political science major in college, there’s no guarantee that your department will honor that credit. To add to that, generally, if you are not going to be an English major in college, passing this test will cover whatever English department general education requirement you would have to face during your freshman year at university.

            High school me packed her schedule full of these classes her senior year. In part because our high school set up the course offerings in such a way that there were no honors classes available to you your senior year, only AP, and if you had to be on the honors track to get into your college of choice, well, you were taking these AP classes instead. And yes, if you are a cynical heart and were inclined to ask if the high school benefited in any way of this arrangement. I think it only made them look good. I don’t think they got a kick back. In the same way any student success made them look good, I guess, benefiting them without any clear drawbacks for the specific student or students they exulted.

But what I think is more important to mention is that I genuinely loved those classes, and I did learn a lot from them.

My English class senior year was probably my favorite. Because—as a way of prepping for the AP exam—we focused on more modern literature that we got to choose. Or got to choose about fifty percent of the time and with guidance from the teacher. The thing is, the essay portion of that AP exam would require you to bring in your own knowledge of novels to use when directed, to satisfy the prompts. Not the physical books I feel paranoid enough to add. You could only rely on your memory for that, so the hope was that if you picked out the material, you’d be more inclined to remember it.

            Now, surprisingly, The Poisonwood Bible was not a book I chose. It was part of the aforementioned summer reading exams. Think back or go back to my Jane Eyre episode for more of an explanation of them. But assuming that you do know, here’s the thing. This particular teacher broke the norm on what the whole summer reading exam thing was supposed to look like. She was the only teacher who handled the AP classes, so she was free to do what she wanted to do, like—as an example—be more reasonable about the exams over the books she picked out.

            I think the format was a few questions she asked aloud whose answers we jotted down on spare notebook paper. But admittedly, I don’t remember that so well. Which I guess means it wasn’t traumatic, so there’s that. But I do remember that it didn’t take, or we weren’t given, the whole class hour.

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            This teacher was also very open to feedback, so one of the questions was what we liked about the books we had read. That one I remember. I remember because I ran out of time trying to answer it. I had liked all the books she had chosen, but there was so much I wanted to say about The Poisonwood Bible that I had essentially set myself up to fail on that front.


            I don’t think that this cut-short test answer influenced the rest of our teacher’s choices. After all, Barbara Kingsolver is an accomplished, polished author in her own right. And adding her into class curriculum just makes sense. Her work with its strong themes and layered narrative makes for great essay material for the end of year exam. Which is all relevant but not the point.

            A couple months later, her first book The Bean Trees was on the list of books we could choose from for that month’s assigned reading. And obviously there was no choice for me. Obviously, I read that book, and my enthusiasm in all of the assignments related to it must have been incredibly obvious because the following month our teacher extended the option to me to read its sequel for assigned reading. Which I eagerly did.

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            That would turn out to be the last Barbara Kingsolver book I would love with that level of intensity. And now I probably should pick apart the reasons why. That’s only fair.

            First and foremost, I should clarify, it’s not the case that the sequel to The Bean Trees was bad. It was not. I didn’t read anymore of her books in class because book selection was dependent on the teacher. She had to be very familiar with the book you were working on for you to be doing it. It would influence the kind of in-class one question quizzes she would ask, any activities about narrative structure, and prompts for the final essay. And she had never devoted herself that diligently to Kingsolver’s other works.

            In fact, she had already gone above and beyond the call of duty by making sure our school library had copies of the rest of her books that I could check out at my heart’s content. The problem was, though, that I had no time for that. Senior year of high school was hectic. At that point, college applications were finally done at that point, but yeah, I had shelved a few other commitments aside to make those happen. Now I didn’t just feel like I was playing catch up; I was in fact playing catch up. And that included reading the books I had accumulated at home that I would hopefully soon be leaving behind for college.

            Look, once a book or several gets left on your to-read shelf, it might as well take its jacket off because it will be there a while. And that was a really corny joke if you couldn’t tell. But I also proud of it.

It would be two years before I picked up another one of her books, Prodigal Summer in fact. I was visiting family with nothing to read but what was on my Kindle, which was far from nothing when there was an internet connection. There wasn’t always an internet connection, though. Prodigal Summer, however, was already downloaded on my Kindle. Likely from a time when I was more optimistic about the likelihood of my getting to it. But the time had come, finally.

            It was a quiet afternoon on this visit home. Something that hardly ever happens, but I always know how to make the most of quiet moments.

            Except apparently I didn’t.

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            Between high school and that moment, despite not having a chance to pick up one of her books, I referred to Barbara Kingsolver as one of my favorite authors whenever the topic came up. Think collegiate get to know you activities or times. And yes, you are not going to like every single one of an author’s books, but Prodigal Summer is the embodiment of all that I wrote on that slip of paper my senior year. But it wasn’t clicking with me. Not then.

            I thought it was maybe the exhaustion. Because family visits can always be tiring. But I tried again a couple months later when I was in my dorm room and had nothing to do. But still. Nothing.

            Cue the existential crisis, I guess. Which sounds dramatic, but when a respectable portion of your identity is built around one thing, like reading books, finding out there is a problem with a detail within that one thing—no matter how small—dampens the structurally integrity of the whole thing. The whole thing you have built your life on. The whole thing that you regularly stand on. Cue justifiable panic.

            But this was all happening to college-me. And currently-me thinks there is a distinction. Now that I’m a few years out, I think I better understand what actual happened in that moment. Namely, that maybe her work and I were just two intersecting lines. We crossed when I was in high school and then we parted ways. And that’s not a slight against either of us, really. Or obviously.

            Ultimately, I can say that while it is a good novel, The Poisonwood Bible represented my first taste of independence. And I loved it for that. Even if I didn’t know it.

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            AP English class was the first time I had an English teacher that actually embodied what the discipline was supposed to be. Not the embodiment of a specific aspect of it but the amalgamation of all its components. Part of that, obviously, is the sense of agency that comes from being able to assemble your own words into thoughts and narratives as well as choosing which ones you engage in. I should probably point out right here that this unnamed teacher has won a statewide teacher of the year award. And it was quite clearly well-deserved.

            And this particular summer reading book felt like a grown up book relative to the place where I was living. I mean, it didn’t depict missionaries as infallible heroes or the unbaptized as empty husks needing to be filled with a specific interpretation of holiness. It also showed the pitfall colonialism laid out for the people who seek their own path after having it dictated to them for so long. In this book, there is nuance and very difficult to hear truths.

            Consequently, reading it at 17 almost 18 was like being invited to the adult table for the first time. Yes, there’s that prestige to be sure. But it’s also like being let in on the family’s darkest secrets. In some ways, you might have reason to be uneasy with your identity or how you got to where you are. But it’s still a rite of passage, isn’t it? Regardless of the contents, there’s still a weight to that moment that ironically lifts you up in that it lets you become more than you were.

            As an adult you are taking up more figurative space or yielding more influence on the world. Or when it comes to broad generalizations you are. Suddenly you feel like you matter. And when you take on these worse aspects of your personal history or of the world more broadly, you have confirmation that this is true. Perverse confirmation but affirming nonetheless. Now, you have the world telling you that you have these responsibilities and obligations and history to shoulder. And with that, with this status of your adulthood and your importance, being reflected back to you, it’s so much easier to believe what you probably want to believe.

            At 17 I was on the cusp of finally taking control of my own life. I was finally about to be free to take my own direction and travel my own way. When reading this book, it was nice to dabble in what felt real. Because yes, you find those other themes in (quote) “traditional school reading material.” The books you can find students across the country complaining about on the internet. But The Poisonwood Bible wasn’t so traditional. At least not from what I could see. Even if it checked all the right boxes.

            I was 17. I was 17 and feeling like the universe had orchestrate a grand ceremony for me to understand the dark side of my world. I was 17, and I felt like I was being welcomed into the actual world. I was 17, and suddenly had reason to think that I mattered and was capable. Even in a negative context. It’s a powerful feeling.

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            But that was me at 17. When I picked up Prodigal Summer, I had just turned twenty. And maybe I didn’t know everything after two years of college, but I knew a lot about the world. I knew a lot of its dirty secrets. I knew a lot of the negative things. I mean, I knew enough.

            On the other hand, I don’t think it’s fair to say I grew out of this love because that’s not true, either. I didn’t grow out of anything. I only mean to say that I grew into myself, a slightly different version of myself. One that didn’t need Kingsolver’s work as badly as I did back said.

            That being said, I did re-read The Poisonwood Bible ahead of this review. And it is just as beautiful as I remember. I still love it, but I don’t love it with the same unhindered intensity that I did in the past. In thinking about it, this is the lesson I’m walking away with: a story I find beautiful will always be a beautiful story to me. But I won’t need it in the same way. I won’t need it to fill the same gaps that it used to. I won’t have those gams anymore. Bad way to talk about love, I know. But it’s not interpersonal love so whatever, I guess. Objects can serve purposes. In fact, they always do. And even if we aren’t consciously aware of it, we are okay with this because no harm can be rendered onto anyone. Or anything capable of experiencing that harm.

            I think I’ve made this comparison before. In a different way but still. And also, I don’t have much of a real experience to ground this in. I tend to avoid reconnecting with people I know from high school. For my own sake, I would say. But also, only one person besides me has made a life out here. Or ever made their presence known. So I’ve largely been able to avoid the whole awkward reconnection thing. (Pause).

            But I imagine it must feel the same way. Reconnecting with this book is like connecting with an old friend or flame for me. I can remember how wonderful it was to have this flame burning so brightly in my life for as long as it did. And yes, we had to part ways, but there’s no reason to regret any of it.

            I certainly don’t. It’s more obvious and reasonable with a book, to say that, but it could be with people as well. Or it’s possible, I guess. But I’m not sure yet.

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