Book Notes: The Poisonwood Bible

In the novel, a fanatical Baptist preacher punishes his daughters by making them copy a hundred verses from the Bible until they get to the one containing a lesson he wants to teach them.

This is a metaphor for The Poisonwood Bible. Five hundred pages of characters and scenes that already appeared in a million other books culminate in the towering idea to which all these evil colonialists, stupid Southern belles, abused Georgian housewives, precocious cripples, saintly Communists, and wise natives were leading us.

That idea is…


More drumroll…

Please prepare yourselves…

… “whiteness needs to be erased” so that people can “walk on a compassionate earth unmarked by whiteness” and live in perfect innocence.

Don’t say I forgot to warn you.

The Baptist preacher character is supposed to be the bad guy in the novel. He’s not as bad as President Eisenhower who’s devil incarnate but still really horrid. All he does is try to indoctrinate people into a meaningless, confusing dogma that he doesn’t even practice himself. He only preaches it to feel superior. The author seems to be unaware of how similar her attitude to her readers is to the way the dastardly preacher treats his flock.

In the first half of the novel, at least there is a plot. In the second half, the plot disappears, and there are 250 pages of straight-on preaching. Bad whites, good Communists, bad whites, good Communists – with absolutely no acknowledgement, of course, that Marx, Lenin and the sainted Khrushchev were very, very white. All this unavoidably reaches the point of suggesting that white people deserve to be murdered solely for being white. I said this about fifteen times already but I have to say it again, Demon Copperhead is the exact opposite. Really, I promise. No murders of white people are advocated in that novel.

OK, just one more thing and then I’ll leave everybody in peace with this book. Do you know who causes wars in Africa? Well, white people, obviously, that’s easy. But do you know how? By bringing vaccines and medications that improve life expectancy. More African babies survive, which is a bad thing. Because each additional black baby disrupts the delicate ecological balance of the continent. And that forces Africans to slaughter each other to restore the balance. I heard Kingsolver wrote a whole novel on the impending climate catastrophe, and you can just imagine how delightful that is.

Gas vs Electric

This is beyond bizarre. Not only are gas stoves massively better for cooking (and I say it as somebody who is an amazing cook, false modesty be damned), having two different kinds of energy is crucial for times when one of them is compromised. It’s only smart to diversify sources of household energy.

Who came up with this insane plan and why? It’s going to be mega expensive, it will punish lower-income households the most, and it is plain moronic.

Just Be Normal

Thanks to The Poisonwood Bible, I have developed a greater benevolence towards the idea of cultural appropriation. Instead of reading the brilliant works of literature by post-colonial writers – Chinua Achebe, V.S. Naipaul, Nirad Chaudhuri, and so many more – Kingsolver surfs the wave of an issue she does not understand and does it in an embarrassingly heavy-handed way. There is a whole universe of nuanced, intelligent, profound takes by people who are actually postcolonial subjects themselves. They don’t deserve to have their complicated and mostly very painful history cheapened by some clueless white lady who wants to make an easy buck by painting them as primitive, pathetic creatures.

It gets to the point where the novel informs us that the only really black people are those who are very left-wing. The black people who hold different beliefs are actually whites with black faces. What that means is anybody’s guess but it is quite distasteful to appoint yourself an unsolicited arbiter of who is or isn’t black.

This is not to say that no white person should write about Africa. Kingsolver’s problem isn’t her race. It’s her racism. It’s the philosophy of “all whites are rats and deserve to die because that’s justice while all blacks are victims except for the blacks who aren’t really blacks and are white rats at heart.” I imagine some American 60 years from now writing a novel about the Russian war against Ukraine and painting Ukrainians like Kingsolver paints Africans, and I want to wail.

In Demon Copperhead, which I insist is a masterpiece, the only false note is a depiction of a black character. Kingsolver is clearly one of those middle-class white Americans who are extremely uncomfortable around black people and try to conceal it by doing weird, embarrassing things. At one of the obligatory discussions of anti-racism I attended, a scholar from Africa said, pointing to a stack of woke manuals, “I don’t need all this. I just want people to be normal around me.”