This book by Barbara Kingsolver is one that has garnered much coverage and discussion since its release. Originally I had told myself I would be finished reading it by the end of January but, ‘lo and behold, I just finished it and here it is- the end of February. The book is dense with both pages and information regarding the history of the Congo. To those who don’t know the subject matter of this book it is, quite simply, a book about a Southern Baptist family living in the Congo to do mission work.
It begins so eloquently with the reminiscing of the mother, a picnic she has with her girls along a river near their mission station, and is woven intricately in to an impressive hook informing us one of her four daughters will be dead by the end of the tale. And the tale is about the journey of these five women/girls during the time of their mission. The hardships they endure through famine, droughts, oppression and the abuse of a father who seemingly has no interest in them nor in the culture in which he is so desperately invested in converting. Behold a paragraph from the opening chapter:
It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes’ peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.
With a wonderful and articulate hook it was still a difficult book to get into. I daresay I wasn’t fully invested in the story until around page 70 or so but the writing was so very excellent I would just pick myself up by my bootstraps and continue right along hoping I would eventually become invested in the story. I did. It’s chock full of history about an area of the world which I have only come to know about in recent years and through my own endeavors. In truth I learned far more about Africa, particularly the Congo, from this book than I ever did in my formative years and am ripe with gratitude for Kingsolver’s tireless research and prose. This is one of those books I would have to recommend to people if they want to know about the Congo, about Africa and are willing to question the very authority under which so many of us were raised to have faith in. It questions that faith by a mere laying out of facts through thoughtful characters and the events that occur to them and around them.
The book was divided into sections, at first named after books in the King James Bible, then subdivided with alternating points of view from each daughter and, upon occasion, the mother. Each voice was unique, exacting and tremendously well wrought but for all that I did, strangely, find it almost lacking due to its excesses. It isn’t that the death of a child wasn’t moving – I cried while wiping away the tears in hopes of reading past it- it was that it suffered from something I think upon as authorial verbosity and editorial submissiveness. There was much Kingsolver said and, honestly, they were all things many of us should endeavor to listen to but… well, as a piece of literature it came out as only lasting as long as it did so the author could preach about her cause called “Africa” and to provide an ending not called an epilogue so we could have some closure that was unfortunately clumsily written. I don’t mean the language was poor, the grammar nonsensical, but that it goes from omniscient point of view to the point of view of someone specific and all so we can have that feel good ending that, quite frankly, had little impact upon me due to the overwhelming amount of space in time that occurred before arriving there.
I don’t mean to sound as though this book wasn’t remarkable, that it wasn’t worth reading – it was. I think anyone high school age or above should read it, examine it, and think about what purpose governments should have in their lives. Heck, should question central banking as well as the arrogance that seems to come from this thought of knowing what’s better for another group of people – a group of people whom we have not had the experience of living like nor even necessarily knowing in their natural environment. It was that rich of a book. And if people are not inclined to pick up a non-fiction work about Africa but REALLY want to know more about it, this book is an absolute must read. I can not stress that enough. There are few books I’ve read that do a culture justice, never mind the issues presented when people are submerged in one so vastly different from their own and Kingsolver does all of it amazingly well.
Regardless of my petty annoyances I can honestly say it was a book I’m glad I persevered in reading and would heartily encourage others to do the same.
Have you read this book? What did you think?