In March 2011, my three classes of AP Literature and Composition seniors read The Poisonwood Bible. After completing their reading and this profile project, I asked them to write a reflection. Did they like it? Why or why not? What were the book’s strengths and weaknesses?
Roughly two-thirds of the students praised it (“I was almost excited to read on and always see what was to happen next”). Several students mentioned it was their favorite book of the year. One stated it was “the only book I’ve read this year in the class that I liked” while another raved “[i]t was the only book in this class where I would have read it even if it wasn’t assigned.” The phrase “well written” was repeated often; one student mentioned she “liked the poetic and lyrical style.” Many enjoyed the multiple perspectives of different characters narrating the novel, each with very distinct voices. “I like how the book switches perspectives and we get to be inside different characters’ heads,” said one student, while another reflected that “[a]fter reading for a while, the voice, tone, and style of text became so individualized that you could discern the character without having a chapter title.” Several discussed how they liked the multitude of allusions, especially the Biblical ones. A few pointed out how well the book incorporated a history they knew little about before; one student mentioned it was “a very interesting look into how our country and the world works” while another said “[i]t was good to get a little history from it and a reality check of what Africa is like.” Lastly, a handful of students were glad the book provoked a debate on religion and faith. One “LOVED how the novel questions religion, because I could relate to it.” Another was pleased that “Kingsolver brought up some interesting points of view on religion and interpretation and what it really means to believe.” “It made me think about deep issues,” said a student who liked the book, “including Western impact on Africa, and how to make my faith my own and not just my family’s.”
[Warning: spoilers ahead.]
However, about a third of the students had a more mixed reaction, while a few unequivocally did not like it. Several students felt the book was anti-religious and/or anti-Christian. Some felt parts of the book were hard to slog through (“some parts seem to drag”). A common complaint/argument was whether Nathan should have had at least one chapter of his own to narrate; one student believed “a separate view from Nathan might have made this book even stronger, and it could have brought more controversy to the fight for or against Christianity,” while another felt “the novel could have been improved if Nathan had his own chapters in the text.” Others felt that after the death of Ruth May the book seemed to go on too long; to some, the ending felt indefinite, and several students were confused who was speaking in the last chapter. Ultimately, almost all of the students that criticized the book acknowledged that The Poisonwood Bible had literary merit or that Kingsolver is an excellent writer.
Here are four complete student reflections that summed up many of the various viewpoints above:
“I thought that The Poisonwood Bible was very well written; it was very poetic and totally sucked me into the plot. I thought that at times the book was relatively slow, but it wasn’t exactly written to be an action adventure pulp novel. I do still wonder what she was trying to say about religion. I still am not sure of her stance on Christianity.”
“Overall, I thought The Poisonwood Bible was a pretty good book. I liked that it was unique in the sense that it’s fairly different from any book I’ve previously read. I think Kingsolver was very clever in creating a book that’s both historically accurate, and interesting at the same time. When I first started reading the novel, I initially didn’t like it. I found it very shallow, and unfairly wrote it off as just another Christian book. It was much more than that.”
“I enjoyed how the story was told using multiple perspectives. It made me realize that we usually always sympathize with the one main character. That isn’t a good way to hear a story; for example, if we only heard the story from Rachel’s perspective we may have had a more positive outlook on her. I didn’t like how long they dragged out their lives after Ruth May died. Overall I enjoyed the book.”
“This novel was definitely not my favorite. Though I did enjoy reading the story from different perspectives which was very interesting and impressive that she could keep their voices separate, I didn’t find myself drawn into the story. There was a short while where I was slightly interested, but my interest was short-lived. Overall, I didn’t enjoy the book. Mostly, and maybe I’m reading it wrong, but it seemed to me like an anti-Christian novel. I didn’t like all the misquoted verses and the things that were taken out of context.”
This last reflection was fascinating to me for the personal connection the student made:
“Honestly, I liked the novel a lot, one of my favorite reads. It does a very good job characterizing everyone, even though they are all very different people. I also liked the way that the characterization went deeper than just who they were and what they did, but also their psychological state and how their beliefs changed from the beginning of the book. You got a sense that you knew the characters, through your insight into their minds. This book also struck a personal note as well, as I have family in Africa, doing missionary work. Their situation is considerably different than the Price’s (they live in a duplex in a major city) but it still had a personal connection for me, especially the danger that a white missionary faces in a country hostile to their beliefs. Not that what Nathan Price was doing was a good thing, but more of the danger Leah was in living with Anatole. Where my family is, missionaries are being deported, just for being Christians in a Muslim nation.”
--Compiled by Mr. Watson, South Oldham High School, Crestwood, KY USA, March 31, 2011
"Kingsolver's powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption and the 'dark necessity' of history." -The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
"Beautifully written . . . Kingsolver's tale of domestic tragedy is more than just a well-told yarn . . . Played out against the bloody backdrop of political struggles in Congo that continue to this day, it is also particularly timely." -People
"A bravura performance . . . A subtle and complex creation, dealing with epic subjects with invention and courage and a great deal of heart." -Newsday
"The Poisonwood Bible is a novel about justice. It is a novel about colonialism, colonizer, and colonized. Spirituality, sexism, and environmentalism are all woven into the tapestry. But above and beyond that, the novel speaks for itself. No review can do it justice.”- www.helium.com- Megan Stoddard