In 1959, a patriarchal, abusive Baptist preacher moves his wife and four daughters to a mission in Belgium Congo. As the reader realizes that their previous lives in rural Georgia did not prepare them for the ordeal that follows, the reader understands that this dysfunctional family couldn't even function where they were born and raised.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is at it best when it details the family's experiences and realizations from the straight-forward discoveries, Georgia seeds won't fruit where there are no Georgia pollinators, and adjustments, learning the local languages, to the more personally intense and complex, like their varying appreciation for the dynamics of village life, and each daughter's appreciation of their father's evil - a lesson especially hard for daughters.
But, the family is only half of this ambitious epic. In addition to chronicling three decades of this family, the book also covers the same thirty years following Africa's worst humanitarian and human failures of its post-colonial era. While this period is full of failures, Africa is a big continent and these failures are balanced with successes and heroes, such as Tanzania and Nelson Mandala. That the Conga was a confluence for greed, violence, and incompetence is without question, and that is the flaw with this book.
The second half of this epic moves from the character driven stories of these four girls to overly long discussions of political theories and alternates histories, reminding me of the worst info dumps usually written in the worst science fiction.
Spoiler Alert: I recommend reading this book for the exquisite characterization and family dynamics, but as soon as one of the family dies, close the book. The rest is weighed down with politics, heavy-handed irony and smug hand-wringing. You can do this safely, being assured that nothing turns out well.
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