Culture > Books

Books: Well-written bigotry

Books | Bestseller is interesting, but still poison

Issue: "Is McCain able?," Aug. 21, 1999

Barbara Kingsolver's novel about missionaries in Africa sat on the bestseller top-10 lists for months this year, and for good reason. Her style is elegant, her scenes are realistic, the characters are compelling, and the plot is interesting. But she rounds up the usual suspects of contemporary fiction: Men are bad, women are good, Christianity is a sham, capitalism is bad, America is bad. The Poisonwood Bible is about a family-husband and wife and four daughters-that goes to the former Belgian Congo as Christian missionaries in 1959. Fifteen-year-old daughter Rachel is constantly committing malapropisms that the author seems to have pulled from old joke books: "We Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony." The father, Nathan, is the biggest sad joke. As he preaches he exclaims, "Jesus is bangala!" He is trying to say that Jesus is precious. But he mispronounces the word, and it comes out, "Jesus is poisonwood!" The poisonwood tree makes you break out in a rash if you touch it, something far worse than poison ivy. Small wonder he is getting no converts. This bestseller merely panders to liberal prejudices and illusions. We have the Rousseauistic presupposition that Africans were "noble savages" before the white man came and corrupted them all, peaceful natives living in harmony with nature. Missionaries sometimes get things wrong, but it's as if white people and their Christian God brought about all of Africa's problems. Ms. Kingsolver shows once again that a novel can have aesthetic merit, but still be little more than anti-Christian bigotry.

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