We now have enough copies of The Poisonwood Bible for several AP classes, and I have been warned that I am becoming dangerously close to a reality TV personality hoarding this text. At almost every sale, I pick up a few more copies.
I happen to love the book…all 560 pages of it, and that is the problem. 560 pages to the average teenager is 500 pages too many. The book was first published in 1998 and follows a missionary family who travels from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959 during the height of the Cold War. Missionaries in the Congo? Kingsolver was way ahead of South Park’s musical creators of The Book of Mormon!
The other problem for most students with this text is Kingsolver’s use of multiple narrators: Rachel, Leah, Adah, Ruth May and their mother, Orleanna. Each daughter has a particular point-of-view of their attempt to “Save Africa for Jesus” ranging from the self-absorbed and shallow Rachel to the brilliant mathematician/linguist Adah and her dogmatic twin, Leah.
Someone placed the book on a list Best Page-Turners with Redeeming Social Value: “This Listopia is inspired by Nicholas D. Kristof’s “Best Beach Reading Ever” list, published by The New York Times, which includes great works of fiction with a social justice angle. He writes, ‘Summer reading often consists of mindless page-turners, equally riveting and vacuous. So as a public service I’m delighted to offer a list of mindful page-turners — so full of chase scenes, romance and cliffhangers that you don’t mind the redeeming social value.'” goodreads.com
I have amassed at least 50 copies of the paperback on a classroom shelf; a dozen more copies have been checked out for summer reading. Offering the book for summer reading will give me feedback on including the text next year. The students will keep dialectical journals (responding to quotes they select from the text), and I can review their notes about the plot, characters, and writing style.
The book currently sells at Amazon for $8.99. My total investment to date? Approximately $60.00 as opposed to the $539.40 the books would sell for new.
The book length is only matched by the number of themes, topics, allusions, literary devices, and clever word play used by Kingsolver. Her understanding of the post-colonial Africa wooed by the superpowers of the USA and USSR was an eye-opener for me. High school history for me ended sometime after the Civil War/Reconstruction. Similarly, I find that current high school history ends with a three day cursory treatment of the Vietnam War. 20th Century history-from 1950 to the present- is overlooked in schools today.
I am reminded of an episode from The Simpsons featuring students pouring out of the school ready to start summer vacation.
“Wait!” a teacher screams from the top of the stairs, “I forgot to tell you who won World War II…!”
The students stop their stampede for a moment while the teacher pauses before shouting, “We… WON!”
“YAY!” scream the students, streaming out of the building, chanting, “USA! USA!”
The failure of history classes to deal with recent history comically portrayed in Matt Groening’s scenerio is the reason to read The Poisonwood Bible. Fiction can make history very real, can make student readers more curious about a time or place, and can “sandpaper” their brains for understanding the past with a more critical lens. I am anxious about teaching The Poisonwood Bible because of the complexity of the politics, but I believe the book is important enough to be included in a curriculum-as a core text or as an independent read.
While I am anxious about teaching the book, I have been banned from collecting more copies by members of my department…lest I be accused of hoarding!