When, some time back, I saw Barbara Kingsolver had won a prize for her literary fiction The Lacuna, set in Mexico, I read it with great pleasure and then kept seeing references to how highly readers had rated her first novel,. So I bought a copy but only managed to take it down off the shelf this month. That’s a shame because her book should feature on any serious book lover’s ‘must read’ list.
The story opens gently with a mother recalling, from her present-day home on Sanderling Island, Georgia, how life was for her back in the 1960s, the era of Sputnik, of the election of JFK and how the world was polarised between the those who felt the land of the free and the home of the brave had the only viable formula for success and those who felt that Communism and the Soviet Union had all the right answers. It was the era when America seemed to believe and act on the principle that whoever was not for them must be against them and that neutrality was simply ignoring reality. How much contact with reality some Americans had can perhaps be measured by the opening sentence of the main story, narrated by one of the daughters of a Southern Baptist minister who chose that time of all times to take his entire family to the Congo to save souls for Jesus.
We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.
Head of the family, preacher Nathan Price for whom it becomes more and more clear that this is not just a mission but an obsession, his wife and his four children are in for progressively more and more disturbing encounters with reality, deep and remote in the Congolese jungle at that moment in history when the Belgians turned the country over to the Congolese and the Americans took fright at the ‘communistic’ tendencies of the democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba and acted against him.
Kingslover unfolds the story a step and a disaster at a time, through the voices of the mother and her four, very different daughters. An enduring joy of the book is the way in which the author successfully inhabits the characters of these five women from whom we hear the story related, each seeing events from their very personal points of view. While twin Leah seems at first to yearn for her father’s affections and tries to support him in all he does, gradually she becomes aware of just how large are the blinkers her father wears.
She becomes more involved in the life and education of the children and grows to love the people and even the country. Her ‘crippled’ non-identical twin Adah, who chooses not to speak, has an inner and more intellectual life in which she revels in words, palindromes and language. Since she is hemiplegic, her left side drags and she is always the one trailing behind. At one point, when the whole village flees a column of fire ants marching through, Adah sees her mother choose the youngest, Ruth May, to carry into a canoe to escape. This denial of love is the low point from which she has to work for the rest of the book to recover.
Ruth May is the one who, like little children everywhere, adapts and integrates into the life of the village, teaching the Congolese children to play ‘Mother may I?’ (like ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ if you know that better) which they chant phonetically. Like her elder sister, Rachel, but for a different reason, she will never leave Africa. Rachel is the one who takes an instant dislike for everything that is not what she was used to in America; which means almost everything she finds there.
I didn’t much care for looking at these men in the pageant. We aren’t all accustomed to the African race to begin with, since back home they keep to their own parts of town. But here, of course, with everyplace being their part of town. Plus, these men in the pageant were just carrying it to the hilt. I didn’t see there was any need for them to be so African about it.
Rachel has another talent. She is the perfect modern Miss Malaprop, using words to mean what she thinks they mean, which adds delightfully to one’s picture of this pert Miss America. Don’t worry about her, though. She has a hard and self-protective character that will see her survive the worst that life, nature and the climate combine to throw at her and she will finish up in the French Congo doing well. But we shall come to that.
The extended drought seems about to finish them off, although father Nathan sees it as the Lord’s work, seeking to show everyone, including his family, the errors of their ways. He, of course, is never wrong. But disaster strikes the women and, as the rains begin to fall in torrents, they abandon him and simply walk away and leave him.
The final third of the book sets down the different accounts of the women, their exodus and their later lives over the next three decades as they face up to their current lives and look back to see how their spell in that Congolese village has shaped their ends. It is ironic that the one that turns out to be least changed as a character is Rachel who still sees the world through her all-American 1960s tunnel vision. It is beautiful and moving that it is Ruth May who provides the extended coda.
This book is a parable for its times; one which seems even more relevant today than it did when it was first published in 1998; although I doubt if Rachel would ever read it. You should read it in your Book Reading Group and debate its place alongside other classics like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird or possibly Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have to rate this at 9.5 out of 10.