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Poisonwood Bible Discussion Questions for Readalong Week 2

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Hello book lovers! If you are joining us for the Poisonwood Bible Readalong, I hope you are enjoying the book. If you’re visiting for the first time to discuss this book, welcome! This month, Lost in Books,  Savvy Working Gal and I are happy to host a readalong of The Poisonwood Bible as part of our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

About Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

WARNING: THIS DISCUSSION WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. If you haven’t read Books 1 through 3 and don’t want spoilers, please come back to discuss when you are done with those sections. If you want to share your thoughts on Books 1 & 2, please visit last week’s discussion post and we had a great discussion in our Goodreads group too.

Ok, here goes…

Story Recap

Book 2 ended with Patrice Lumumba’s Independence speech as the new Prime Minister. Book 3 begins with Orleanna’s flashback and story about her courtship and quick marriage to Nathan Price. We learn more of Nathan’s backstory before becoming a preacher. The Underdowns have fled the Congo and Nathan decides the Price family will stay despite any financial support from the mission. The book ends with the family escaping the vicious nsongonya, Leah tells Anatole she loves him and there are plans hatching to assassinate Lumumba.

My Thoughts:

This is where the book really picks up for me. Orleanna’s story about what Nathan went through while he was in the military shed a little light on why perhaps Nathan is adamant about baptizing every Congolese in Kingala. Still this guy rubs me the wrong way, it’s his condescending approach that I don’t like.

I like that Leah’s hero worship of her father is wearing off and she’s realizing he’s human and capable of mistakes. She’s got a fiery spirit and I’m enjoying hearing her voice more in this section.

I loved Brother Fowles, now this is what I think a missionary should be like. A kind spirit who tries to understand his potential congregation, and how their culture and experience impact their beliefs. The calm rational way that Fowles got under Nathan’s skin was fantastic.

I wished that Fowles had more time to spend with Nathan but really enjoyed his contribution to this story. I’ve been Catholic for 13 years now but grew up Hindu. I have some personal reservations about all the rules and hoops we have to jump through to call ourselves Catholic, get communion and reach Heaven. Is the Bible the end all and be all of God’s law? I think the Bible is man’s interpretation of God’s law and no two people interpret the teachings and parables exactly the same. Do the translators read too much into what the stories try to teach us? Barbara Kingsolver says it so much more eloquently but I felt she took it straight out of my head when Brother Fowles tells Leah,

‘God’s word, brought to you be a crew of romantic idealists in a harsh desert culture eons ago, followed by a chain of translators two thousand years long.’ Leah stared at him. ‘Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself’…’Think of all the duties that were perfectly obvious to Paul or Matthew in that old Arabian desert that are pure nonsense to us now. All that foot washing, for example. Was it really for God’s glory, or just to keep sand out of the house?’…’But I’ll tell you a secret. When I want to take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.”

My belief in God comes from a feeling I have each morning when I’m blessed to wake up and marvel at my sons’ loving eyes staring back at me. Why did God put me here? What’s my life purpose? It’s to be their mom, my husband’s wife and keep God’s gifts to me happy and healthy.

And by the way, oh my word, I’m going to have nightmares about the nsongonya.

Discussion Questions

1. How has your opinion of the characters changed now that we see more of their story and they’ve been in the Congo for awhile?

2. Does Nathan’s backstory make you more sympathetic to his behavior? I loved the quote: “If his guilt made him a tyrant before men, it made him like a child before God.” How can Nathan be so abusive and righteous at the same time and be two totally different characters? Wouldn’t God want Nathan to be more kind and understanding to His people?

3. Orleanna confides that when Rachel, Leah and Adah were babies, she was so busy being a mother that she “encountered my own spirit less and less.” Have you ever felt that you’ve lost your spirit? How did you get it back? How do you find time for yourself?

4. The Congolese believe strongly in curses. Do you think the Price Family is cursed? Are you superstitious?

5. What do you think of Brother Fowles? Why was he kicked out from the mission program? What did you think of his interaction with Nathan?

6. Did you suspect what Tata Ndu’s true intentions were when he started visiting and bringing gifts to the Price family? Were you surprised that he wanted Rachel for one of his wives given the tension between blacks and whites?

7. Eeben Axelroot: friend or foe?

8. Share some of your favorite quotes from this book.

Join the Conversation on G+ and Goodreads

I’ll be posting the discussion on G+ and Goodreads too so be sure to join our groups there and connect with other book lovers who want to Travel the World in Books!

Announcements!

Don’t forget to join us on Twitter Wednesday, January 14, 2015 from 9-10pm EST for our monthly #TraveltheWorldinBooks chat. A chance to check in with other book lovers, find out where they’re currently reading, get great book recommendations and tell us what future events you’d like to see!

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Just announced: our Foodie February 2015 event. Read books about food from around the world in February. More info and sign up for Foodie February 2015 here.

Well that’s it for this week’s discussion. Feel free to answer the discussion questions in the comments, on G+ or Goodreads! And please post your own questions you’d like us all to answer. Please join in the conversation to discuss this thought-provoking book!

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5 Comments

  1. I agree that Leah is one of the characters who is changing the most, growing up and showing she is humble enough to learn. I loved what Anatole calls her, Béene, honoring her unflinching devotion to Truth. She is surprised to learn this, his view of her, and as a reader it took me a bit by surprise, but I think it is apt. She faces things. She sees immediately that she left Adah behind in her panic over the ants. She is seeing her father, and Brother Fowles, more clearly. Brother Fowles does cast a wonderful light, the light of God’s love for the people he lived amongst and served. It would be hard not to be healed and illumined in the vicinity of that light, but Nathan is the exception, closed to that light that threatens his certainties so.

    While I was reading about Brother Fowles, I thought about Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk and missionary in India who had the utmost respect for the devotion to God and deep tradition of thought he found in Hinduism. He fashioned a mission that honored and practiced both ways, and he lived as a sannyasin known as Swami Dayananda, since this was his way to be a Benedictine in India.

    My favorite quote came when Leah saw the pink moon rise over the Kwilu river she was standing in to escape the biting ants. Not know whether she would even survive this, she paused to look and thought, “Though I didn’t deserve it, I wanted to rise to heaven remembering something of beauty from the Congo.”

  2. Wow…I had a hard time getting into the book at first, but now I am hooked!

    1. I feel like I understand Nathan a little more but I still don’t like him! Unfortunately, it sounds like trauma in his life has somewhat contributed to the way he is now and it is sad to know that he is not the same person Orleanna married.

    2. I think Nathan’s idea of God is totally different than other Christians’ views of God. There are some Christian groups that I think are more in tune with the God described in the Old Testament, but being Catholic, we tend to focus more on God in the New Testament…a God that is loving and forgiving.

    3. I think this is a typical feeling for many mothers. Your role as a mother is so all-consuming that it is really easy to lose yourself in the process. I 100% believe that it is important for mothers to still have something for themselves and to practice self-care so that they can be healthy and better mothers for their children.

    4. I guess I can be superstitious at times, but not like the Congolese. I think the Price family is not cursed, but just living a typical life in the Congo. It sounds like the Congolese have all experienced the same kinds of things throughout their lifetimes.

    5. I really loved Brother Fowles….I liked this take on the Bible and the idea of being open to the people. As a therapist, I strongly believe in the idea of “meeting people where they are,” and I think this is what Brother Fowles did.

    6. I never even thought about it. The way women are used and treated in this book is so far from the way things are now that it is hard for me to really understand that it used to be like that. As far as color, I think he just wanted another woman to add to his collection and one that was of a difference race/color would have just been a novelty for him.

    7. I think it depends on whether or not he needed you for something;) I think he is really just out for himself and will team up with whomever he needs to in order to get the best deal for himsef.

    8. Most of my favorites are from Brother Fowles!

    1. 1. I agree Rachel, Nathan’s backstory didn’t earn much sympathy from me. Though Becca mentioned in our Goodreads discussion that she thought maybe his zeal for saving the Congolese was to make up for not being able to save his fellow soldiers. I thought it was an astute observation.

      2. Very true, I didn’t think about the difference in the Christian denominations and which version of God they believe in. Good thing i’m Catholic now, I much prefer the loving version though I still have a lot of built up guilt from not following all the “rules” of Catholicism.

      3. Moms do need self-care, it took me a decade before i realized I needed that break to just have some time for me.

      5. I love that. ..”meeting people where they are.” More people need to practice that to take your own perceptions out of the equation and really understand what experiences shaped another person’s point of view.

      8. Mine too!

      Thanks for sharing Rachel, so glad to hear from you and discuss it with you!

  3. I just finished Book 4 last night (this is my first chance to join in the discussion – crazy week!), so I’m trying to keep Books 3 & 4 straight in my mind!

    As you know, this is my second time reading The Poisonwood Bible. I’m enjoying it just as much – maybe even more. I definitely think I am picking up more subtleties in it, knowing what is coming later (though I don’t remember that much!).

    To me, Nathan is the perfect embodiment of so many fervent religious leaders and missionaries. I think it is horribly arrogant to believe that your way is the only way. The worldwide view at that time that Africans were poor savages (like the cartoons with the cannibals!) fits right into Nathan’s views that they need him to help them live thier lives properly. I like how both Leah and Adah see the irony in this and recognize that the Congolese get along just fine, as they have been doing for thousands of years. Even Leah gradually comes to understand that the different ways of the village (the garden is a perfect example) are different because they are attuned to the local, natural environment, not because they are ignorant. It’s sad that Nathan STILL doesn’t get it.

    I agree about Brother Fowles – I had forgotten his character from my first reading and just loved him! And I agree, he is the ideal missionary – willing to understand and even embrace the local ways and find ways to adapt his beliefs to the local world. Of course, it’s ironic (again) that that is the very reason he was kicked out of the missionary – for “going native.”

    I continue to be in awe of how incredibly clever Kingsolver and this entire novel are. I especially enjoy Adah’s insights because she is something of an outsider, looking in, and so very observant from listening and not speaking. The chapter where she finds out from Nelson that the Congolese think twins are a curse and leave the babies in the forest to die is fascinating, especially when she realizes her father’s “church” is made up mostly of families of dead twins! This passage was telling:

    “The Reverend failed to notice that every churchgoing family whose children were struck hard with the kakakaka quietly removed themselves back to ancestor worship, while a few of the heathen families that were hard hit quietly came and tried out Christianity. While it makes perfect sense to me, this pragmatic view of religion escapes the Reverend entirely….

    And so he continues ministering to the lepers and outcasts. By pure mistake, his implementation is sometimes more pure than his intentions. But mostly it is the other way around. Mostly he shouts, “Praise be!” while the back of his hand knocks you flat.”

    That passage illustrates just how insightful and smart Adah is and just how out of touch Nathan is.

    Here’s my favorite quote from Book 3, from Orleanna’s section at the front:

    “What Aunt Tess loved to say was: ‘Sugar, it’s no parade but you’ll get down the street one way or another, so you’d just as well throw your shoulders back and pick up your pace.'”

    I related to that!

    There is just SO much here – I could talk about it for hours – wish we were sitting in the same room together!

    Sue

    Book By Book

    1. Yes! “Horribly arrogant” is the perfect way to describe Nathan. I’m glad Leah in particular is starting to see her father’s limitations and mistakes.

      I love Adah and the passage you described. I think Kingsolver is showing us how we need to stop and just observe listen to get a true understanding of other people. We have so much “noise” in our lives and attentive, focused listening is both very difficult and an art form.

      I wish we were in the same room too. Maybe we can set up a day time Twitter chat so we can discuss it live when we are done.

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