It was not the sort of text that uplifts, nor did it cast any sort of light on or offer deliverance from the human experience. It was dark and broken and made you look too close at things that are painful, inhumane, even nauseating. However, the first time I read The Poisonwood Bible, I fell in love. Why? Because it validated me.
The problem with children of the post-modern era (or post-post-modern, depending on how technical you want to get) is that we are always looking for validation without a reason, without a moral, without an all-powerful explanation to simplify everything. Our literature is about social statements, about tearing down walls and upsetting binaries, about pushing the limits and muddying the water and making everything incredibly, incredibly complicated. We are like this because our lives are broken, our families are broken, our white-picket fences and family rooms and tenderly laid-out dinner tables have been steam-rolled by pharmaceuticals, by commercial advertising, by processed foods and corrupt politicians and pointless wars and a god we have repackaged and repurposed so many times as to make him totally unrecognizable. In The Poisonwood Bible, I found validation. It took the ugliness, the flaws, the incompetence, the fears, the doubts all hidden on the inside and brought them out into the sunshine. It didn’t try to heal the reader, but at least it let us look at ourselves without feeling shame.
The novel takes the form of personal narrative from the point of view of each of the females in the Price family—all have a voice, from the wilting mother, to the baby, Ruth May, to the handicapped Adah, who refuses to be swathed in politically-correct innocence but unabashedly manifests herself to be as twisted on the inside as only someone suffering from that level of neglect could be.
The only character with which we are forced to rely on the opinions and words of his family is the father of the Prices, the stern and proud Reverend, the holiest character yet the cause of so much anguish to his little family. Growing up in a very post-modern family where the father had taken off shortly after my birth, I found the character of the Reverend fascinating. He was a romantic character—the devout, strong, Christian hero, the missionary, the handsome provider. He was a character that would appeal to women on a variety of levels, yet we resent him even as we love him. I feel I understand this paradox well. Adah writes of her father:
“TATA JESUS IS BANGALA!” declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon. More and more, mistrusting his interpreters, he tries to speak in Kikongo. He throws back his head and shouts these words to the sky, while his lambs sit scratching themselves in wonder. Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! For Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.”
Bangala. Perhaps the easy tipping of the word is the point of the book, the point of a post-modernist’s life. Something can be precious and dear, but said wrong, handled wrong, treated wrong and it becomes an affliction. The Poisonwood Bible is about how religion and families and love and strength and faith are all bangala—so much potential for good, so much potential for bad. For me, though this book does dip at times into a modern-day Paradise Lost, it doesn’t try to be the anti-Bible or debunk Christianity as a whole. It just tries to validate the times when things go wrong, when families go wrong, when faith goes wrong. This book did not inspire me or uplift me or even make me feel good. It did, however, let me look at my life, my father, all of my bangala without shame.