Bulc Koob {Book Club}

Were you like me at the start of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? Did you wonder, “What have I gotten myself into? This is S-O-O-O-O-O-O long. Is it worth it?” (In my head I spoke in bold.)

Well, it didn’t take l-o-n-g (oh gez, Rachel would say) to answer with a resounding: this is more than worth it. Between the writing, the history lesson, and the peek into a family in our line of work, I go back to what I said in May, this is a must read for us. Or a must-listen-to. Thank you book clubber for the reminder that some books are better listened to :)!

The Writing

I am going to limit myself to how often I say: “wow!” “Can you believe?” and “This is SO good.” But first, one big WOW. Kingsolver has brilliantly constructed this book. Now that I know the five women, she wouldn’t need to say who was speaking at the beginning of each chapter, she could just say, “Next!” and I think I’d figure it out. The way she has captured the voice, syntax, age, and vocabulary of the five females is stunning. I like the way each section starts with Orleanna’s piece of the story (giving us the grown-up perspective), but then the only ones who speak the rest of the section are the children. And though Nathan never officially has a voice in this book, his presence is everywhere. I wonder what our stories would be like, if only told from the perspective of others?

I love the way Rachel uses phrases she has misheard — and other simple things in life I have took for granite. . . . and here my brand-new tulip-tailred linen suit in Poison Green with square mother-of-pearl buttons was fixing to give up the goat. . . . believe you me, your chances are dull and void.

Can you believe how Adah plays with language? Her ability to use palindromes and read forward and backward in multiple languages just floors me. I nearly laughed when she was making the list for Rachel and Leah and said, “wrote if, for the benefit of my sisters, left to right.” Ha! or would that be, ah?

I won’t say much about Leah or Ruth May here. What do you think of them?

I go back and forth from wanting to shake Nathan for what he’s doing to his family and the people he came to serve to wanting to let him know he doesn’t have to earn redemption. War leaves wounds that go deep, doesn’t it?

And naming the bird Methuselah? Brilliant. Methuselah has the longest recorded history in the Bible, and Methuselah the bird carries a record of all the M’s who have come as he repeats their phrases and theology and voices.

The History

I loved hearing in Heart in the Right Place from people who were familiar with rural Tennessee culture. So, one of my great hopes for this book is that we’ll hear from those of you who know Africa (and in particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I wasn’t very familiar with the history of colonization of this country–and the name changes. I read these two articles (here and here), if you’re interested in a bit more context.

The Peek Into Our Line Of Work

Alright, I could go on and on here and imagine we’ll be circling around these themes as we discuss the book .

We could camp out on the section sub-titles alone: The things we carried, The things we learned, and The things we didn’t know. I just wrote a newsletter to supporters yesterday and as I read those titles, I’m thinking I could structure my next newsletter around them. How about if we each share one thing we carried, one thing we’ve learned, and one thing we didn’t know. And the main titles: Genesis, Revelation, and Judges. If this was an inductive Bible Study and we were writing one word summaries, she nailed it.

“I had washed up there on the riptide of my husband’s confidence and the undertow of my children’s needs.” Orleanna. Riptides and undertows. I’ve felt them too. Where have you felt pulled?

“God created a world of work and rewards,” he elaborated, “on a big balanced scale.” Again, I want to scream when I read these sentiments as they are sprinkled throughout the book. Noooooo, that is not the gospel! I wonder what Nathan would have been like as an M if he hadn’t lived through the war when all of his company died. If he weren’t plagued by survivors guilt and the need to carry all of those men on his back as he tried to live a life worthy of having survived death.

How do we live with these tensions ourselves? Most of us reading this come from privilege never having known starvation, on-going war, or slavery. How do we lean into the tension of blessing without it becoming a burden, leading us down the paths of earning our salvation?

Throughout this section we see the girls feeling they need to protect their mom and some of the roles being reversed. Have you seen this on the field?

And finally (only because of length), let’s talk about when Nathan learned about the girl being eaten by the crocodile after he’d been pushing and pushing for people to be baptized and said, “I fail to understand why it would take six months for someone to inform me of that simple fact.” I was struck by the urgency he felt knowing he only had a year contract and wasn’t really sanctioned by his agency. The urgency crowded out the space to observe. It’s tempting for me to judge him. But you’ve probably known people who were too pushy or those who observed, observed, observed, never actually doing anything for our line of work.

I found myself wanting to distance myself from the Prices and not look for points of identification. They are a train wreck! And thankfully it’s unlikely a situation like theirs would occur today. I said to make myself feel better. I think I’m right, but I also know I’m wrong.

Your turn! What have you been noticing and enjoying (or being super frustrated over). What do you think of the girls? Do you like the Prices? Can’t wait to chat in the comments :)!

Amy

P.S. Here’s the reading plan for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver:

July 7 — Roughly 40% (or 220 pages) — includes the chapter titled Adah and which with the line “God works …”
July 14 — Roughly 60% (or 330 pages) — includes the chapter titled Leah which begins with the line “You can’t …”
July 21 — Roughly 80% (or 440 pages) — includes the chapter titled Adah Price, Emory Hospital, Atlanta, Christmas 1968
July 28 — Roughly 100% (or 543 blessed pages!)

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22 Comments

  1. Lori July 7, 2015

    Your review of the book is certainly compelling. Unfortunately, I read the book several years ago and can’t comment specifically on your questions but can only give an overall impression from what I remember. To be honest, I didn’t like it! After reading your review, I must rethink my position. When I was reading it, I wasn’t evaluating the brilliance of her writing (a sign of a good book, I think. I was just immersed in the story) but now that you mention it, much of her writing was quite brilliant. I think it was just so different from anything I had read before and perhaps I didn’t really understand it. At any rate, my main reason for disliking the book was my dislike for the father figure, Nathan. I remember being shocked at some of his lack of empathy for the people and angry at some of his actions and treatment of people. I might have even been seen muttering “idiot!” to the pages of my book. I felt that the book gave m’s a bad name. Perhaps intensely disliking a character in the book is also a sign of a good book because at least it means it evoked an emotional response.

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2015

      Lori, I agree that my initial reaction (when I read the book, oh say, 15 years ago? Not sure!) was frustration over how it made m’s look. I thought it was full of cheap shots, but so brilliantly written (those palindromes are amazing! And to do them in various languages, wow) and structured. To tell the story from the children’s point of view. Wow. Ok, I’ll stop myself. Since she’s not a believer, I wasn’t surprised. I’m trying this time to see what we can learn and talk about :). My sincerest hope is that much of what she’s said has changed and “we” don’t do “that” anymore. But, sadly, I’ve bet you’ve met a few people who rushed in and didn’t spend enough time observing and understanding the culture OR didn’t make their marriages/family a priority. It might be worth rereading :). Regardless, please pop in and comment! You don’t have to have read it recently to keep chatting!

  2. J July 8, 2015

    I absolutely love this novel. Thank you for including it in the book club Amy. I am a day late in joining you. I hope that more people are not put off by it’s length and are able to join in.

    I must admit the book took me a long time to read, due to other commitments, but if I had nothing else to do I probably would have read it straight through without stopping. I am hoping to re-read parts of it during this book club. Yes, it is not a happy story but the character development and insight into what is going on at all levels is far beyond other books I have read. Personally, I would have liked to know what was going on in Nathan Price’s head, as we only see things from other people’s points of view. I identify most with Leah but love Adah’s sense of humour. Rachel is interesting in the way that she is so wrapped up in her own world and doesn’t give much thought for anyone else.

    At the beginning of the book, I was struck by the sub-titles “The things we carried” etc. For some reason, I thought there was one called “The things we left behind” but that is not in the book. We moved to India 3 years ago and for various reasons decided not to ship or air cargo anything. So we came with ten suitcases that we were allowed with extra check-in baggage, and at least 2 of these were full of my husband’s books for his work (he is a surgeon).  We didn’t keep anything in my country of origin (except for a few bags at my parent’s place). Our house was sold and our remaining possessions were either sold or given away before we left. I was expecting our third baby at the time and had to find things for the baby after we arrived. I went through some time grieving for “the things we left behind,” especially as I knew we had previously owned the baby things we were searching for. But, God has so graciously provided everything we need. I also found that there were possessions that I thought were important that we didn’t need. Honestly, in the West people just own too much stuff and the media and advertising are promoting this. I now laugh at lists I see on the internet for baby stuff that you supposedly need! In the book the Price family find that some of “the things they carried” ended up being useless in The Congo.

    I would like to re-read sections and discuss more but I don’t have time right now. I will try next week.

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2015

      J, I love the idea of a section called “what we left behind.” (and I can see why you’d think it was in there! I had to scroll up and reread from the post what the three sections were that ARE in there.)

      This is just me babbling — on the one hand, I would like to hear from Nathan, on the other, it would really change the book. So, as I’ve sat hear talking to myself, I wondered what having another book told just from his perspective would look like. Just a thought 🙂

      Feel free to jump in as much as you can, no pressure!

  3. Felicity Congdon July 8, 2015

    I love reading your thoughts Amy! Great synopsis and talking points.

    I also find myself constantly angry at and sad toward Nathan. Reading Orleanna’s stories giving us glimpses into his past, he begins to make more sense and I began to feel more compassion for him, but mostly I’m still angry.

    I definitely enjoy Orleanna’s chapters the most as she reflects on and names her own traumas and Nathan’s past–confessing that she discovered those details little by little over the years after beginning marriage in ignorance of who her husband was. Though she seems to be truthful about some of the regret she has for the way things went, she has little hope that it could have gone any differently. She blameshifts often blaming her husband blaming her exhaustion from motherhood…are these enough reasons not to fight for a better life? Certainly, she does not believe that redemption of any kind could be hers, does she?…?…?

    Do I like the Prices..??..I do like Orleanna, I so long to see her find hope. I think I feel most for Leah though–constantly trying to please her father, an unattainable goal yet she still hopes and believes that one day she will earn his approval. She is so capable and strong, but yet she just can’t believe that there could be any fault in her father so she continually has her heart broken and her knowledge of God warped.

    I want to take more time to reflect on my own realities for the themes:

    The things we carried, The things we learned, and The things we didn’t know. 

     

    But, I need to get to language study right now. Been slowly adding to this for the past 24 hours and need to just submit it! Maybe I’ll have time to think and write on those themes later.

     

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2015

      Felicity, thanks for sharing your breaks with us :). Hope the studying is going well. I hadn’t thought of all the ways Orleanna blames shifts, but now that you point it out, I see it. I can imagine it was a huge shock/disappointment to have married one man, have him go off to war and come back another. But she’s not the only person who has faced this (or had a friend or child really change for a whole host of reasons!). We’ll get into this next week, but I wonder how much power she felt she really had?  I’m sitting here, looking out the window and wondering. Will think on this some more.

      For me, let’s see:

      The things I carried — on the non-physical side, an optimistic view of life. On the physical, I carried some teaching supplies I never used because they were impractical in my context.

      The things I learned  — I learned I moved to an area with TONS of rats and mice. Tons. I learned I’d be sharing my living space with them. I also learned how to kill them 🙂 — and from my local friends, I learned that baby mice are delicious to eat. I’ll just take their word 🙂

      The things I didn’t know– I didn’t know how pragmatic the locals view was towards life. I’ll never forget when I first realized how common it was to abort a pregnancy if there was a possibility of a defect of abnormality. It was said so definitively. At that point, I hadn’t experienced a way of talking about “disabled” people that way. I kept thinking about my friend Carol Lynn with Downs’ Syndrome and my friend Marla who is legally blind. I was very shaken by the conversation (nearly cried in it, a big cultural no-no).

      1. Felicity Congdon July 8, 2015

        Thanks for sharing your “things” lists. I was in your country when I was pregnant with my first and I was shocked to see a poster in my OBGYN’s office with a pic of a baby in the womb that said…oh I wish I could remember exactly what it said but something along the lines of “girls are worth keeping”… and also to find out that (not sure if this is still true) it was/is illegal for the doctor to tell you whether it’s a girl or boy ahead of time.

         

        As for for my things lists…maybe I need more time to pass before I can nail them down since we’ve only been here 4 months. But…

         

        (so far)the things I didn’t know…I didn’t know that the more I attempt to build relationships the more lonely I’d feel. I can’t communicate or understand much so making efforts to have families in our home or have play dates just sheds a spotlight on how much MORE effort it is going to take to know and be known by my community than compared to moving to a new community in my home culture…which is difficult enough. We became long termers because we want to put down roots and be a part of a community for multiple generations, but it seems it may work vice versa here…it may take multiple generations of living here before we are accepted as part of the community. I know that is an exaggeration but it feels that way now.

        1. Amy Young July 9, 2015

          Oh, one more thing I brought … well, actually my teammate did. We heard they reused needles and her dad was a doctor :). Needless to say, he wasn’t taking any risks. We brought hypodermic needles. Never used them. I wasn’t sure how to disposed of them years later 🙂

           

          I’m SURE there’s more, this just popped into my mind as I read your comment 🙂

  4. Michele Womble July 8, 2015

    I really didn’t like Nathan at first, but now feel sorry for him and realize that he himself needs help (I’m still mad at him, though)  – and I feel so bad for Leah, trying to please him – and I wonder, he feels so guilty and haunted by the deaths of his fellow soldiers – it seems that he would be afraid of the guilt that might follow him if his family goes down because of him? Why is he not thinking about protecting THEM?

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2015

      Michele, I don’t know! I think that’s THE question :). Maybe he thinks, “if you go down, it’s because YOU didn’t do what you were supposed to.” Watching Leah with him is heart wrenching.

  5. T July 8, 2015

    I read this some years ago and have a close friend who is a TCK from Zaire and Kenya. She can’t read the book yet because it is too similar to her experience. Let’s pray for our kids to have better experiences!!! Sometimes I wonder what our huge blindspots are now and try to show our kids that we all have them, esp as we look at history (my husband is from plantation zones in the South of the USA). I love palindromes…one of my fave literary devices!!! I agree it is useful to read hard books like this for introspection.

  6. MaDonna July 8, 2015

    This is my first time reading this book – though it’s been on my list for years, I’ve just never got around to buying/checking it out. I was on vacation, sort of, and ended up finishing the entire book yesterday.

    I was laughing so hard at all the things they took on the plane – and amazed at the same time. I was picturing all the layers of clothes AND then all the metal objects they had in their pockets…so different in someways, but then again the same. How many of us stuff that carryon suitcase with as much as we can because we are just barely over the limit as is. And how many of us have had to rearrange suitcases because the one suitcase we thought was going to be okay, wasn’t going to work.

    I also was extremely angry at Nathan – but like you, I did find a little compassion as I saw into his past. I just went to a POW camp here in Taiwan this spring with my oldest and his class and we learned about many of the horrors that happened during that time period – our guide informed us of that same march, as well as shared how those in the POW camps in the Philippines were transported to Taiwan in death ships. It WAS horrible…

    BUT, it made me so thankful for my own husband and how he protects us and watches out for us as a family.

    Rachel and her selfish ways really annoyed me, but she is a sixteen year old girl whose life seemed to always be on herself, social ladder at school, and the latest fashion. It’s sad that she never really could look at other’s needs and have compassion on them

    I related to Leah in the fact that I was a tomboy. She longed so much for her father’s approval, his attention…he never saw that, he never thought about it. Did he think girls were just not worth it? I think so, as this was an interesting time in history for women as well.

    Leah…she was a pickle for sure. I loved that she noticed that the people in the village didn’t treat her any different than her sisters. In fact, the people seemed to see her as she was, not what she could have been or beneath them because she was slow and limped. Her outlook of life she never really shared with anyone, as she kept her thoughts in her journal or her head.

    The parrot – LOVED the scene where he cursed and the mother got up and walked away leaving the girls to deal with their father’s wrath. Okay, I was a bit upset that she didn’t admit she was the culprit that “taught” the bird, but as the nature of Nathan was unfolded more and more, I could definitely understand why – and understand why the girls protected her from their father. Taking the punishment together wasn’t as harsh as letting one take it all alone.

    I really enjoyed the book and the many many thoughts that went through my mind as I read. The one thing that seemed to me lacking was the girls not mentioning friends back home, or other people that they may have missed…I know Rachel did some, but I think with transition there is some grief. Though, maybe the hope of only being there a year kept the grief at bay?

    1. Felicity Congdon July 9, 2015

      I enjoyed your thoughts here! Good point about the women mentioning very few of their relationships back home. I think you are into something when you say their planning to be there only a year may have kept that grieving for relationships at bay. I wonder also if Nathan was so overbearing and controlling that they weren’t permitted to (or weren’t socially capable of) developing deep friendships much at all. Am I correctly remembering that they moved around a lot –doing the big tent revivals–or was that only before the girls were born /when they were young?

      If if they had moved around a lot that could be another reason they didn’t have deep friendships.

      Thanks for sharing about your tour of the POW camp. It really puts the reality of war into perspective.

       

      1. Phyllis July 12, 2015

        Also, the twins were considered weird and too smart. They were moved ahead in school. That probably explains why they weren’t missing friends: they didn’t really have any. Ruth May was young enough that it wasn’t a big deal for her. And Orleanna was too much under Nathan’s control. Rachel seems like a whole mess of grieving and missing!

  7. Jenny July 9, 2015

    I just love love love this book, and am excited to be reading it again, and have people to talk to about it!  I’m enjoying your thoughts and insights.

    I love Orleanna’s lament to Leah on pg 65 ” ‘If i’d of had the foggiest idea,’ she said very steadily, holding her plae, weeping eyes on me, ‘just the foggiest idea.  We brought all the wrong things.’ ”

    The stress of celebrating a child’s birthday in a normal way put her over the edge, and I feel her pain.  These whole first hundred pages are full of such poignant reminders of the ache in adjustment, the utter unpreparedness we have in practical, mental, and spiritual ways as we head to and from the ends of the earth.  I found myself both laughing and crying at the ridiculness of it all, the layers of clothing and tools in the futile hopes of eking out an existence that made sense in their home country which makes no sense in a new place.

    When I first read this book about 15 years ago I was offended and thought something like, ‘phew, i’m glad our line of work isn’t like THIS any more.’ Now I find way more of my own heart and familiarity than I would have liked.  Such a good read and reminder.

    1. Amy Young July 9, 2015

      Jenny, your last sentence could have been written by me. As I’ve mentioned, I read this book quite a while ago and waited to re-read it with you all, so while I know in general where it’s going, there’s much I forgot. But, like you, I’m finding myself identifying with it far more than I did the first go-through. Which is hard, but overall, probably more accurate than my first read.

  8. Jenny July 11, 2015

    Oh pg 91-93, is one of my favorite pieces of writing EVER, the clever, bitter description of the Remarkable Occasions (meals) Orleanna’s family ‘required’ three times a day.  “They couldn’t understand that the sort of meal they took for granted, a thirty-minute production in the land of General Electric, translated here to a lifetime of travail.”

    Yes and amen.  When I read this last year I burst into tears because rarely have I felt so understood in my darker places of feeling like this about cooking and caring for my family in situations that were hard.  Sometimes it was a joy and delight to figure out how to craft soft pretzels for an afternoon treat or one more way to fix eggplant but sometimes it seemed like a lifetime of travail to put together more and more meals for my clamoring little flock of hungry baby birds.   I felt guilty for my exhaustion over this.

    I’m stunned by Kingsolver’s ability to feel this specific burden and articulate it so well.  One of the things I love about this book is that because the author does not claim to be a Christian her filter is off and the true heart of the women in this story is heard with an honesty that I have not often known in Christian circles.  If I was writing this section I could be honest to a degree but I would be oh so careful to not make it seem like I was complaining or paint my heroic sacrifices in the kitchen as worth it for the eternal reward.  I appreciate her saying the hard things full stop.

    1. Amy Young July 13, 2015

      Jenny, I wish I could star this comment — you have articulated so beautifully this particular passage and its power. I agree, Kingsolvers ability to walk in our shoes and honor how hard parts are without over or under spiritualizing them, is breathtaking. Both in their beauty and the jolt of air sucked out when we say, “me too.” Love this comment, thanks! Full stop.

  9. F July 12, 2015

    This is a good book, but it’s also so hard to read! I’m searching my own heart. I also feel like I’m watching a similar situation happen with a family nearby, and I don’t know what to do. The parts I highlighted as I read were the kinds of things I wish I could say aloud to them, that whole conversation where the Underdowns were trying to get them to leave…. “It’s hard to imagine a mortal man more unwilling to change his course than Nathan Price.” “I’m sorry to have to remind you that you were advised not to come.” “I would also say it has the admiration of many people who lack your family’s… boldness.” The response here would be the same, too.

     

    Prayers please.

    1. Amy Young July 13, 2015

      F, I could feel the burden you’re carrying as I read this. As I said in the post, I’d like to think these kind of situations won’t happen today, but I know they do. And as in the Price’s case, I am especially sorry for the kids. Will pray.

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