My Book World
In 1959, a Baptist minister, his wife, and his four daughters, leave their Bethlehem, Georgia home for a year of service to the Congo in Africa. The mother, Orleanna, opens the novel with a long lens; we learn right away she will lose one of her daughters, and so we read on patiently to see how such an event will unfold. Of course, we sort of forget, and we’re shocked when the youngest, Ruth May, is killed by a poisonous snake much later in the story after we have come, like her mother, to love her.
This expansive novel is divided into seven books, always a sign of what will be a sprawling narrative. Each book opens with a chapter narrated by Orleanna, the frazzled mother who dares not rile the ire of her preacher husband. The remaining chapters of each book are narrated alternatively by each one of the daughters: Rachel, a light-haired blonde, probably born about 1945, who has visions of high fashion and easy living in her life—having not much use for her father’s strict evangelical life; the twins, Leah and Adah, one a healthy adherent of her father’s ways (for a while), the latter injured before birth and who limps yet has a brain equal to her twin sister’s. The former will eventually marry a Congo native; Adah will return to Atlanta and become a doctor. Before her demise, Ruth May, the youngest, is a sprite, a child with her own language, her own worldview, a darting derring-do that will eventually serve to take her life.
Each chapter then widens our view of their village in the Congo as it survives an historical upheaval: one popular but revolutionary leader being killed within three months of his election, and the return to office of a corrupt man who will conspire with the West (mostly America) to spend thirty-five years amassing great wealth while his countrymen and women survive (or don’t) lives of poverty. One additional character, Mother Nature, or her evil sister, makes life at the least difficult, at the most, a disaster of magnificent proportions. In what feels like the climax, a giant wave of ants marauds their Congolese village, and its inhabitants must survive by, among other things, climbing trees until the rampage has passed. When this family returns to their house and accompanying buildings, they find only bones left where their chickens once roosted. The house is spotless, as if cleaned by a squad of maids. At this point, Oleanna gathers her three remaining children and abandons her husband. Now this is not as easy as it sounds. She has always served Nathan and his god with blind faithfulness, but now she sees that he is not well (think heart of darkness) and must save her remaining three daughters. Only she is not even able to do that. Rachel marries a South African man of questionable character (and three more men in serial monogamy). Leah marries her native. Adah returns to Georgia with her mother. It is a family broken in so many ways it takes an entire book to portray how. Oh, and the title? The poisonwood tree is an apt name because of the substance it oozes; its bible an apt metaphor for the despoliation of one family. A stunning, timeless read.
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