Friday, March 22, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Re-read of The Poisonwood Bible 

I first read this novel when it was put on Oprah's Book Club list in 2000. This is a novel that I have mulled over and considered for over 12 years. So, when I had the opportunity to choose a new contemporary novel for my AP Literature class this year, I decided The Poisonwood Bible would be perfect to share with my students, and it would give me an opportunity to re-visit the work. 

The title draws you in because of the juxtaposition of the words poison and bible. Most would identify death, illness, pain, disease with the word poison, but the connotations for the word bible may not be so universal. Because I live on the buckle of the bible belt, the majority of my students identify truth, life, heaven, law/rules, the way, church, goodness, etc with the word bible. Putting two words from opposite ends of the spectrum in the title engenders questions and predictions. Why would the bible be poison? This question is like a splinter in your hand that has broken off and can't be pulled with tweezers, you just have to wait for it to work itself out.

Second, a quick check of the table of contents indicates that, like the bible, this novel is divided into books called Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children, and The Eyes in the Trees. Immediately, the extended allusion to the bible suggested in the title is furthered. In my area of the United States, not many people are familiar with the Apocrypha, so a little research reveals this novel will allude to more than the King James Version of the bible. Additionally, each book of The Poisonwood Bible has a sub-title which alludes to the novel, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brian. 

A further preview of the novel reveals that each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter is narrated by a female member of the Price family. The daughters of Nathan and Orleanna Price, Leah, Ada, Rachel, and Ruth, are allusions to women in the bible as well.

This elaborate, extended allusion sets the stage for the journey the Price family takes as they move from Georgia to the Belgium Congo in the early 1960's to be missionaries. The conflicts the family encounter are used as a microcosm to understand the macrocosm of the conflicts the Congo has encountered in its many, devastating dealings with the 'civilized' world.
Patrice Lumumba

Jospeh Mobutu
 If you aren't already familiar with these topics, I suggest a bit of quick research on the history of the Congo, imperialism, Patrice Lumumba, and Joseph Mobutu before reading this novel.

On this read through of The Poisonwood Bible, I tried to identify why the novel stuck with me for 12 years, and I decided much of my love for this novel is because of the character development. The Price family could be any number of families I grew up with. I have met the father, Nathan Price, and wondered at his extreme devotion and his thoughtless arrogance. I love Ada's character because of her different view of the world. She quotes Emily Dickinson, develops her own palindromic language, and reads backwards. Finally, I identify with Leah's internal conflicts.

The thoroughly developed, dynamic characters are Kingsolver's vehicle to address weightier issues. Looking at my list of ontological questions, The Poisonwood Bible offers enough meat to wrestle with all of them. There are no easy answers to be found here. This novel allows for meta-cognition and, on the flip side, it begs the reader to analyze world politics and issues. It is universal and it is timely.

Ontological Questions:

1.  What is the meaning of life?
2.  How should I live?
3.  How can I accept the idea that someday my life will end?
4.  What does it mean to be a good person?
5.  What is truth?
6.  Am I brave or a coward?  Does courage matter?
7.  Do the rewards of life balance or outweigh its pain?
8.  How should people treat each other?
9.  How can man live in the ugliness of the modern world without despair?
10.  Why do evil and suffering exist?
11.  How can we tell the false from the genuine?
12.  Does my existence matter?  Do I dare to disturb the universe?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

So much depends on frame of mind.

Tackling Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens required me to change my mindset. I typically rush at a novel and devour it, much like eating lunch between 3rd and 4th hour at school. I spend little time lingering over anything. Often I don't even try to predict what will happen next because I know I will get to the end of a novel in just a few hours.

As it turns out, Little Dorrit is not a novel you gobble in one sitting. I checked Wikipedia and found, through serialization, Little Dorrit was published over the course of 19 months. So, I allowed myself a month to read this novel which made a difference in my appreciation of it. 

The novel is divided into two books: Book the First: Poverty and Book the Second: Riches.The first book is almost entirely exposition. We are introduced to about 20 characters and a number of minor conflicts.

Side Rant: Introduced is rather an understatement because Dickens does not merely introduce his reader to a character. He spends chapters on physical description, minutia, mannerisms, phrasing, etc. After his thorough introduction of characters, there is no doubt in my mind I've actually met these people. While I appreciate the details, most of the characters in this novel end up being static. I don't see a dynamic change in their personality with the resolution of the novel. At the beginning of the novel Little Dorrit and her family members can be defined as:

Amy Dorrit is Little Dorrit, the long-suffering, humble, good girl who sacrifices for her ungrateful family. 
Mr. Dorrit is the oblivious, self-important father willing to turn a blind eye to the many sacrifices his daughter, Amy, makes for his comfort and reputation.
Fanny Dorrit takes advantage of her doormat sister, Amy, in typical bi-polar fashion with equal professions of  "I hate you" and "I love you."
Tip Dorrit allows Doormat to bail him out of every bad decision he makes and expects to land on his feet in an even more profitable position.

These characters do not change by the end of the novel which is frustrating to me because I want them to grow or have an epiphany or something.

I found it almost impossible to discern the main conflict of the novel by the end of the first book. There is a bit of mystery surrounding the main protagonist, Arthur Clennam, the death of his father, the letters DNF, his stoic, religious mother, and the life-long servant, Jeremiah. I clearly missed a number of clues which would have informed me that this conflict tied the novel together. If I ever read this novel again (probably not), then perhaps I would catch the details.

Otherwise, I read 90% of the novel before I realized which story lines were the ones that would be resolved.. So, this is a novel where the journey, not the destination, is to be enjoyed. Particularly timely is the description of the Circumlocution Office which so mirrors the gridlock of American politics that I had to smile and shake my head at the same time. I suppose history is replete with examples of the business of accomplishing nothing in government.

I've already mentioned that I doubt I will re-read this novel, so next I wonder if it is worthy of the AP Lit. class. I can't imagine assigning this novel in high school. I'm not sure any student would read every page or even want to finish it. However, it is a gold mine for examples of characterization and tricky syntax. I could see myself pulling paragraphs for practice analysis. 

All told, because I allowed myself to digest Little Dorrit just a bit at a time, I did enjoy it. Next up, A Streetcar Named Desire and Poisonwood Bible