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Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

August 20, 2015 6 comments

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverSummary:
In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message.  Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters.  When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.

Review:
I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa.  While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book.  Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for.  The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.

The beginning of the book is excellent.  Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.  It is so powerful to see him through their eyes.  To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them.  It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.

It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in.  He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better.  Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them.  His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break.  For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles.  He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles.  It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives.  Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.

Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails.  The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves.  For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist.  While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human.  She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all.  It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something.  The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes.  One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.

Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life.  Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations.  It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded.  I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.

The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant.  It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way.  I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand.  It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell.  That hurts the story.

Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole.  Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Red Church by Scott Nicholson (Series, #1)

March 22, 2014 2 comments

A glowing red church next to a silhouette of a tree with a blueish lit sky.Summary:
The Red Church was the base of a new cult started by Wendell McFall in the 1860s.  But when he took things too far and sacrificed a child, his congregation hung him from a tree.  Nowadays, the children of the town view the Red Church as haunted…and so do some of the adults.  When Wendell’s descendant, Archer, returns to his hometown from California, he brings the cult back with him in a new form. Archer claims he is the second son of God, and that Jesus was the first son who failed to deliver God’s true message.  When he reclaims the Red Church and murders start occurring, half the town suspects Archer, while the other half falls under his spell.

Review:
This book was loaned to me by someone who really enjoyed the series.  For most of the book, I felt that it was well-written horror but of a religious bent that isn’t for me.  However, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.

At the beginning, the book feels like a horror story written by a Baptist person truly committed to their faith.  The main antithesis to Archer’s cult is the Baptist church in town.  At the core of the conflict are a married couple.  The wife falls firmly under Archer’s spell while the husband stays true to the Baptist church.  Their two small boys are caught in the middle.  The most interesting parts of the story are when the third person narrator focuses in on these two boys, showing their crises of faith and the siren call of the cult, as well as the confusion engendered when their mother and father fight over religion.  I could definitely see this reading as a richly crafted, frightening horror for someone who is Baptist, or at least Protestant, themselves.  For the non-Christian or non-religious reader, however, the frequent mentions of Jesus, capitalizing pronouns referring to God, and attempts at creating horror at the mere idea of not following Jesus fail to aid in establishing the horror.  They become something to skim past rather than part of the atmosphere of the book.

For most of the book, the basic plot of Archer versus the family and the sheriff and the crime scene detective flows nicely with just the right touch of horror.  Toward the end of the book, just who Archer is and what precisely is going on becomes muddled.  A lot of what happens with Archer and his church just doesn’t make a lick of sense.  In spite of the religious leanings of the book, I was still engaged and wanting to solve the mystery of Archer.  Instead, who he is and what the rules of the world are become increasingly muddled.  The ending generally should clear things up, not leave things more confusing than they were before.  That kind of confusing ending would be disappointing to anyone who read the book.

I also was disappointed by one particular aspect of the ending.  A person who was abusive gets forgiven because forgiveness is what the Baptist church teaches.  It bothers me when books brush off abuse as something just getting Jesus in your heart can fix.  It’s misleading and dangerous to encourage people to think that way.  Granted, this is a horror book, so it’s doubtful many children will be reading it, but that still doesn’t make it a good message.

The characters are interesting and widely varied.  The children, particularly, are well-written.  The scenes are well-envisioned and communicated.  I never had any issues imagining any of the scenes vividly.

Overall, this is a well-written horror book that flounders a bit at the end.  It is richly steeped in the Baptist faith.  As such, I recommend it most highly to Protestant horror fans who don’t mind a bit of a confusing ending that doesn’t answer all the questions.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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