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Mother Africa -- Beast or Beautiful?

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Maria Elena Africa is often presented as this mystical, savage land that needs the salvation of those who know what's good for it. Kingsolver gives us a missionary family, the patriarch wholly obsessively devoted to saving the natives through Christ and baptism. Ultimately, though, we get a tale of Africa's resolve...or do we?

Are we still, however, getting a story of conquered savagery in the survival of the sisters? The commercial conquest of Rachel? Leah marrying one of her sons? And, Adah "escaping?"

Is the salvation of Africa and the taming of its beasts figurative? Africa's resolve, after all, is portrayed as her unwillingness to be anything but tragic...for the Price family.

What do you think?


message 2: by Al (new) - rated it 5 stars

Al I don't think it was "tragic".

Yes, there was no shortage of "tragedies", but families have difficult times everywhere, and these were african-style.

Some of the charachters grew and were enhanced by their african experience (Leah, Ada, mom?) Rachel was probably going to live the life she got regardless of Africa.

The whole point of the book is perspective. What does it take to see the world from another perspective? Africa tragic and wild... Leah could only find peace and her place in the world in Africa...and it accepted her, let her in.

I don't see Africa as being conquered here...and sorry, don't know enough about biblical Leah to know what you are talking about there!


Cindy I don't see Africa being conquered at all here either. Disrupted and wounded, yes, but clearly the "conquering heroes" in this story were turned away unsatisfied. Africa's resolve isn't "portrayed as unwilling to be anything but tragic." Rather, Africa will accept those who assimilate and understand her, like Brother Fowles.
I think this book had a few main points. The idea of Christian missionaries going in to save the souls of the lost Congo is absurd. As she says over and over "Why are we white Christians from Georgia all set to go to heaven just because we were lucky enough to be born in view of a Baptist Church?" Clearly Kingsolver thinks those who come in and make no effort to understand the people around them deserve what they get.

And I think her second message is that of the strength of the women. Despite the years of obeying and being beaten down by Nathan, they all find their own path to earthly happiness. They break free from his cruelty starting, oddly enough, with Leah who loved and followed him more than any of them. Unfortunately Ruth May is the catalyst that causes Orleanna to finally break away.

Truly this is a story of resolve, as you mentioned before questioning it. perhaps the Congo, like the women, will recover from the beatings of Western Society, much the way the women in the story did. I think that's her message. In fact Kingsolver points to this every time she mentions the way the jungle plants recover and retake any cleared land given half a chance. The Congo, too, will recover from what's been done to it, but the process will be difficult and painful for all involved.


Yona I agree with Al that the story about the perspective, and I'd like to add that it's about bearing witness as a way of dealing with personal and political tragedy. I think the way Ruth May and the father die demonstrates that Africa has not truly been conquered. Whatever constraints are put on it, it still has its own history, its own agenda, its own strength. Another example is the father's attempt at Westernized agriculture: it just doesn't work in the Congo. The country has its own natural rules and laws that can't be overwritten with a one-size-firs-all solution.

Also, I don't know about biblical Leah, but I don't recall Leah in the Poisonwood Bible marrying her son. He was the family friend from earlier in the book, and was actually quite a bit lder than her.


Martha Samsell I read this book several years ago and enjoyed it.


Sumanya I don't think Africa's resolve is portrayed as 'tragic' only. I think what the book is saying is that when you introduce something so alien ( as an american baptist) to a culture, there are different outcomes for different people ( a lot of what happens to the Price girls is consistent with each of their characters). Leah's and Ada's situation is not exactly tragic as one gets with her lover and the other is doing what she wants. Rachel perhaps sees herself as 'lucky' although her situation is not something any of us might choose.

I see this as explaining so many of the contradictions that other observers of Africa have commented on. The point is that when people are subjected to something alien, there are different ways of coping with it.

I think the all-female narrative is a stroke of genius on Kingsolver's part. It takes a marginalized community (women) to understand another ( African).


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