Monday, July 16, 2018

'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it -- from garden seeds to Scripture -- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. 

Barbara Kingsolver made me read this book. I heard her speak at the Adelaide Writers Festival and she was mesmerising. Her session was so packed that I sat jammed in a crowd perched on a steep bank behind the stage, and had to dig my heels into the grass to stop slipping. It wasn't the ideal spot but she held my attention for the whole hour, with her fascinating topics and friendly approach. I knew I'd have to track down her books, starting with this epic modern classic, and wow, does it pack a punch!

This book brings us into the heart of the deepest, darkest African jungle. The Reverend Nathan Price is the text book evangelist.... on how not to do things! Whatever he does, do the opposite. He makes no effort to understand the background and habits of the native Congolese he goes to live among, because he scorns it as not worth his time. He expects them to embrace his western habits and rigid brand of Christianity because they are clearly 'right'. Nathan doesn't tolerate discussion. He never considers that an insight into their superstitions and folklore might help with his game plan. He has plenty of bluster and perseverance, but no speck of genuine grace or love. And he drags his wife and daughters along to see him make a total hash of things.

Yet we do get hints of a chink in Nathan's armour, helping explain what shaped him into the man he became. An experience during World War Two in which he escaped from his regiment left him last man standing, with a massive case of survivor's guilt. He's promised his notion of God that he'll do his utmost to atone for the cowardice that saved his life. Nathan's a pain in the neck, but there's still something dramatically Shakespearean about him. In his fanatical effort to make his life count, perhaps he's tragically wasted time through sheer cluelessness.

The Price family suffer repeatedly for not having done their homework. The Betty Crocker instant cake mixes intended for birthday cakes turn rancid in the tropical climate, and American vegetable seeds won't flourish for lack of proper insects to pollinate them. The African bugs simply won't recognise them as plants. Nathan wonders why people are so averse to Baptism, until he learns the river's infested with crocodiles. And he uses what he thinks is their word for 'wonderful' to describe Jesus, but it's closer to the term for 'poisonwood', a plant that leaves a nasty, stinging rash. Nathan is preaching a 'poisonwood Bible' without even knowing it.

The story is told by the female Prices, each with her own unique take on things.

Rachel is the eldest daughter; a shallow, platinum blonde who grieves the loss of her mod-cons and beauty aids. She's the unintentional master of malapropisms, mixing up enough words to make her parts a good laugh, but it bothers me to write Rachel off as nothing more than a selfish fashion plate, and bit of comic relief. Either she is responsible for her own personality or she isn't. If she can't help her shallowness, then it's unkind to criticise her for something fundamental. But if she is capable of changing her stripes, then it makes sense to encourage her to think harder about topical issues rather than just slinging mud at her. However you look at it, Rachel was forced to abandon all that she valued for a lifestyle totally alien to her. Love them or hate them, they were her values, and she'd be a saint not to feel some resentment.

Next in order of age are the twins. Leah begins their Congo experience anxious for her father's approval, but she's more humble than he is. Experience and a growing regard for their new neighbours opens her eyes to a world of striking differences, highlighting the over-simplicity of expecting everyone to think the same. She realises that African foreign ways are not necessarily incompatible with the gospel preached by Jesus. It is Leah who falls deeply in love with the land, and also with her father's young translator, Anatole. She gets angry at economic and political injustice and chooses to throw her lot in with the people, whether or not it helps in the long run.

Adah is lame by birth and mute by choice, a consequence of being born the weaker twin. But she's extremely intelligent with a quick and cynical mind that hones mercilessly into the nature of people and cultures alike. Adah's sections are a fascinating challenge to think outside of the square. A whiz at both Maths and English, she loves playing around with language and poetry, even inventing her own brilliant palindromes, including words, phrases and whole sentences that can be read the same way both forward and backward. Dubbing her father the 'amen enema' is a great example.

The youngest is Ruth May, a stubborn 5-year-old who chooses to do her own thing, such as hiding her malaria pills because they taste bitter. Her sections are full of attempts to re-phrase her father's fire-and-brimstone in terms she can wrap her head around. Overlooking all is their tired and long-suffering mother Orleanna, just dragging herself through the motions of supporting her husband's cause.

The first few hundred pages are riveting, but I think the book is way too drawn out in later sections, in which the girls grow to middle-age and go their separate ways, each processing their African experiences differently. It covers a far longer period of time in a shorter block, and lost a fair bit of momentum for me. It felt as if Barbara Kingsolver dropped in as the author to make sure we didn't miss her political and social agendas, which was a shame. Maybe it simply suffers in comparison with the colour and intense mystery of the earlier story. I just wanted back in the frangipanis and bouganvillea of Kilanga Village. Overall, her story and way of telling it are equally stunning.

I want to mention some religious stumbling blocks people have raised though, as it would be shortsighted indeed for readers to reject Christianity, thinking they now know all they need to from Nathan Price's example. But equally shortsighted are some Christian articles I've read, disparaging the book on the grounds that Kingsolver makes Christians come across like Nathan Price. (I didn't get the impression that undermining the faith was her intention. How about the generosity of Brother Fowles? She gives credit where it's due.) It seems a knee-jerk reaction from prickly folk who sweep aside her powerful action of giving voiceless people a voice, because they're busy defending themselves. It reminds me of Nathan's own defensiveness when Anatole kindly tries to wise him up about the villagers' mindsets. Instead of taking it as the favour it was intended, Nathan instinctively reacts as if he and Christianity are both under attack. So if you're indignant that Kingsolver is painting you as Nathan Price, maybe you should take a step back to consider whether or not you are Nathan Price.

I'd urge fellow Christians to behave unlike Nathan, and take the story as a call for action. To me, Barbara Kingsolver is putting herself in Anatole's position and informing us how the Christian faith may occasionally come across to observers. If there are cold, judgmental, graceless, rules-oriented Christians like Nathan still out there colouring what people see, it makes no sense to join them by writing harsh things about Barbara Kingsolver for writing this book. Isn't it a better idea to take this book as a tip-off that we should give gifted authors like Kingsolver something good to write about Christians?


Monday, July 9, 2018

Harsh Punishments

Fictional teachers have a knack for inventing some of the harshest punishments for their students' misbehaviour, to the extent that you can't help wondering if a sadistic imagination was a job requirement. Applying the metaphorical stick seemed to give this group a jolly good thrill of satisfaction. Or maybe it was partly a desperate ploy to maintain the upper hand, calling for increasingly more negative creativity. I thought I'd avoid incidents involving the cane, because it's just so crass and un-inventive. Even withhout a strike across the palm, literary school punishments can get pretty insane. Here's a countdown of some of the most memorable I can think of, starting with some lighter ones and culminating in the ultimate deed of depravity at the end of the list.
10) Amy March is punished for bringing pickled limes to school
Mr Davis has warned his class of schoolgirls that he won't tolerate the fad for this sour sweet, but rather than simply confiscating them until recess time, he orders Amy to pitch hers, one by one, out of the window. Apart from the waste of a good treat, the shame of being put on the spot is too much for Amy, and Marmee is incensed enough to withdraw her from school. The March family weren't fans of using humiliation to make a point. They sound naive about the public school system, and I was surprised Amy lasted as long as she did. In my opinion, Mr Davis' punishment was on the tamest end of the spectrum and deserves tenth spot. (Here is my review of Little Women.)

9) Anne is disgraced in front of the class.
It's her punishment for cracking her slate over Gilbert's head, so in all fairness, Mr Phillips has to do something. He chooses to make her stand by the blackboard and writes a line about her bad temper. To add insult to injury, he doesn't spell her name right. He leaves off that crucial letter 'e' when he writes, 'Ann Shirley has a very bad temper. Ann Shirley must learn to control her temper.' That upsets her just as much as all the rest of it. (See here for more about Anne of Green Gables.)

8) Bart Simpson gets never-ending lines.
The start of every episode has this boy copying something completely fresh, to the point where we viewers automatically check what he's been up to this time. The intended negative reinforcement never seems to stop his mischief. Or perhaps it does, since every occasion is new and different.

7) Miss Wilder orders Carrie to keep the desk thumping.
It's an unfortunate incident, since the poor girl had been so intent on her studies, she didn't realise her wonky desk was causing a disturbance. But her tetchy teacher forces her to crank up the noise louder, to the point where Carrie almost faints from the effort. Her indignant big sister Laura steps in to save the day, and eventually features her future sister-in-law Eliza-Jane in stories such as this for all the world to see, which is perhaps the biggest come-back. (Review of Little Town on the Prairie coming soon.)

6) Dame Slap gives her students impossible-to-answer questions.
She runs a sort of reformatory school for naughty fairies, pixies and elves. It's pretty clear that she loves her job, since she makes sure there are always unavoidable reasons for dealing out punishment. But Moonface and the gang call her bluff by coming up with answers she can't refute, since they're just as ridiculous as her bogus questions. Old Enid Blyton kids' classics are well worth a read.

OK, we've passed the halfway point. Now they start getting really intense.

72445) Reverend Nathan Price makes his daughters write 'The Verse'. 
The Prices are a missionary family living in the Congo, and this stern, autocratic dad takes on their education in his extreme way. He often makes the girls write 100 Bible verses in one sitting, ending with the crucial one relating to their misdemeanor, (such as 'honour your father and mother'). Although his skill at zipping back one hundred verses to set the start is impressive, the surprise element never makes the girls any fonder of the dreaded discipline. (Here is my review of The Poisonwood Bible)

4) Fake Mad-Eye Moody turns Draco into a ferret. 
Well, this one is technically a physical punishment, but it's compounded with humiliation when he bounces him up and down with his wand. It's such an unusual use of a teacher's power, on my list it goes. I'm sure poor Draco never forgets what happened. Professor McGonagall explains the ethical considerations of a such a deed, when she scolds her fellow teacher, 'We never use transfiguration as a punishment!'

3) Professor Bhaer turns corporal punishment back on Nat.
It's written in a way that we readers are meant to condone this incident, but it reeks a bit of emotional manipulation. Instead of following the expected protocol, the good professor hands the cane to the student and reverses it. He says in effect, 'If you persist in telling white lies, I must be a very poor teacher, so I want you to whip me until I shout out for mercy.' After a few half-hearted taps on the hand, the total unfairness of the turn-about makes poor Nat crack, so he promises to behave himself from that moment. As far as the author Alcott is concerned, the experiment worked. But I think it shows that sometimes students have more sense than crazy teachers. And it didn't go unnoticed by me that Prof Bhaer chose a thoughtful little chap with a strong conscience rather than a big rebel who might've taken full advantage of the opportunity. I know he meant well, but it's just a bit weird and twisted.

Now for the final two, which I was balancing back and forth for a while.

399882) Miss Trunchbull force feeds Bruce Bogtrotter a huge chocolate cake.
This head-mistress from Matilda is one of the worst teachers in literature. What sort of depravity  must it take to force a young boy to keep swallowing mouthfuls of a party-sized mud cake until he's sick to bursting point? It's got to be one of the worst punishments ever, but Matilda, Bruce and their fellow students manage to transform the cruel deed to a glorious victory, turning the tables back on Trunchbull. It made a big impact on my homeschooled kids but didn't stop us trying a recipe we came across for 'Bruce Bogtrotter's cake.' Delicious.

We are down to the nastiest punishment of all, and I think I've made the right choice.

1) Professor Umbridge makes Harry write lines with a quill that scorches the words into his hand.
2She pretends that her unjust punishment isn't going to involve excruciating bodily pain. He expects that he'll just have to knock off a few lines. 'You're going to use my special quill,' she gloats in her syrupy sweet voice. We must read, or re-read the incident to get the full impact of her simpering smile while he sits there, gritting his teeth, resolved to say nothing at all. For of course Harry is fortified by knowing full well that he's in the right. He wasn't telling lies at all by warning the world that Voldemort had returned, and we all trust that events will show up the true colours of both these characters.

Casting my eye down this list brings even more to light. Rarely did literary school punishments produce true remorse or anything but bitterness, resentment, scarred emotions and bruised spirits. In most of these incidents, the student was written as the focal character deserving of our sympathy. I do believe there's a place for punishment, but perhaps these authority figures used a bit too much relish. It strengthens my belief that as far as punishments go, the most effective ones involve sowing and reaping. An undesirable result simply follows inevitably from a student's action. It also helps convince me that the carrot is a preferable motivational tool to the stick whenever possible.

Can you think of any incidents I overlooked? Please mention any extras. Also would you change my rankings?

You might also enjoy this related list of best and worst teachers.
And here's an even more specific one, full of notable literary headmistresses. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

'The Napoleon of Notting Hill' by G.K. Chesterton

In a London of the future, the drudgery of capitalism and bureaucracy have worn the human spirit down to the point where it can barely stand. When a pint-sized clerk named Auberon Quinn is randomly selected as head of state, he decides to turn London into a medieval carnival for his own amusement. One man, Adam Wayne, takes the new order of things seriously, organizing a Notting Hill army to fight invaders from other neighborhoods. At first his project baffles everyone, but eventually his dedication proves infectious, with delightful results. First published in 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill was Chesterton's first novel. It has been called the best first novel by any author in the twentieth century.

This book caught my eye at the second-hand shop, and I thought it'd be a good choice for the 'Classic by a New-To-You author in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd heard of G.K. Chesterton, but knew next to nothing about him. If this first novel and his Wiki page is any indication, he was a pretty colourful character and man about town. The title alone should have given me some indication that this story would be a weird ride, but it still had me shaking my head several times. Not in a bad way though :)

Chesterton wrote it in the guise of a futuristic tale, but it's really more like an alternative history of his own turn-of-the-twentieth-century London. The hereditary monarchy of Britain has been abolished. Instead, successive kings are chosen haphazardly by lot. The characters are great at justifying the reasons behind this. (Is trusting the luck of the draw any less chancy than hoping the eldest son of an eldest son will turn out well? If he's a tyrant, he's still a check on hundreds of other tyrants. If he's a cynic, it's to his interest to govern well. And if he's a criminal, we've removed the need for crime by removing poverty and substituting power.)

One day the role falls to Auberon Quin, a little owl-like guy who likes nothing better than a good joke. He says, 'A sense of humour, weird and delicate, is the new religion of mankind. I made a kind of vow to myself that I would not talk seriously, which always means answering silly questions.' When he's crowned king, Auberon decides to turn the London suburbs into a copy of the old Medieval feudal system he loved reading about as a kid. Everyone is ordered to erect city gates and obtain banners and coats of arms, just so he can amuse himself by sitting back and seeing it all play out.

Of course the people hate it. (Londoners had no particular objection to the king making a fool of himself, but they were indignant when it became evident he wished to make fools of them.) But since lodging formal complaints involves putting themselves in the spotlight with trumpets and fanfare, they decide to let it roll and live their lives as normal as possible. Some businessmen wish to build a new highway which will involve demolishing a tiny, insignificant street in Notting Hill. The young ruler of that suburb refuses any money offers, and decides to declare war on them, with all the pomp and ceremony he can muster.

It turns out that even though the king considers his own reign a big joke, Adam Wayne takes it totally seriously. He idolises his birthplace, Notting Hill, with great fervour, and closest to his heart is the aptly named Pump Street, which is under threat. The style of the current monarchy makes it easy for him to defend it with all his passion. What follows is a total shemozzle, fought with all sorts of antique weapons such as halberts and swords.

Whoa, the first thing that jumps out at me is that guys with warped senses of humour and guys with no sense of humour are equally dangerous. Chesterton seems to be suggesting that a balance somewhere in the middle is needed. I'll bet he had great fun writing it, and the foreword in my copy says that one rejected title was, 'The Joker and the Fanatic.'

It's a fairly short and quick read, with the potential to spend just as long thinking about it and trying to thresh out meaning when you finish. Both main characters have some valid points. Auberon believes that humour is the greatest power in the world, and we'd definitely suffer to live without it (although Adam Wayne somehow managed!) But we can also take good on board from the way Adam appreciates simple truth and beauty that others take for granted. We may think he romanticises the commonplace to a ludicrous extent, but it makes him happy and there are big grains of truth in it.

One thing stays most in my mind. What Auberon intended as a meaningless joke without any real conviction becomes a great and wonderful cause for Adam to believe in. He doesn't let any man dictate what's meaningful and what's not, so perhaps Chesterton is challenging us to follow his example. We can use our own God-given heart and reason to choose what we deem meaningful, and we can do it in a more balanced way than these crazy, polarised protagonists.

Here is some of the sort of dialogue you can expect. This bit begins when the king feels the earnest young man growing on him.
Auberon (to Adam): Have you hypnotised me? Curse your uncanny blue eyes. Let me go. Give me back my sense of humour. Give it back I say.
Adam: I solemnly assure you that I haven't got it.
Auberon: No, I don't think you have. (Falls back with a roar of laughter.)

Some passages are surprisingly topical for our day and age. How about this one. 'Mr Mick not only became a vegetarian but at length declared vegetarianism doomed, shedding, as he called it finely, the green blood of the silent animals. He predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried) entitled "Why should Salt suffer?" and there was more trouble.' It impresses me to think that this was published back in 1904!

I'm glad I read this wacky little book, but won't add it to my favourites. It's too ridiculous for many stars, but too thought-provoking for few. It probably deserves a ranking somewhere in the middle, which may match where our senses of humour should be.