The bildungsroman, a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character, is a first-cousin to coming-of-age novels, and Barbara Kingsolver’s rich, epic novel, The Poisonwood Bible, exemplifies the kinship very well. Orleanna Price is a main character and an adult when the novel opens; thus, her story is not technically a coming-of-age story, but more accurately, a bildungsroman. Her daughters’ stories, however, are certainly coming-of-age stories, and they will be reviewed in subsequent posts.
In Poisonwood, earthy, vibrant Orleanna marries Nathan Price, a man who discovers his own desperate desire to survive at all costs just prior to the Bataan Death March. Because he hides instead of surrendering to the Japanese and preserves his own life, Nathan becomes something intolerable in his own eyes: a coward, ashamed, guilt-ridden. He resolves to redeem himself in the eyes of God by serving Him as a missionary in Africa regardless of the price that the Price family must pay. Nathan plunders his family’s joy and security in his personal quest to find forgiveness.
Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, is a co-conspirator. Disappointed in the cold, insecure man who returns to her from World War II, she nevertheless remains devoted as a good Christian wife should. She overrules her own doubts and follows her husband to Africa, four daughters, the youngest five years old, following her like ducklings in a row. Each female wears as many items of clothing as possible--so many that each feels the oppressive heat of Africa more keenly, but putting her girls in layered outfits allows Orleanna to pack supplies that she deems essential. She packs unwisely in her complete naïveté about Africa. For example, she wastes limited luggage space with boxed cake mixes that she hoards in order to bake birthday cakes for her girls, but the ingredients quickly become unusable hard, dry blocks in the African damp. Even if Orleanna could have mixed the batter with clean water, eggs, and oil, each of which is not readily available in Africa, she would most likely have been unsuccessful in baking it. She only has a wood-burning stove to use. She must cut the wood and build a fire of the perfect temperature after walking to the river for a bucket of water to boil. She must raise chickens to harvest eggs or barter with her neighbors. The sheer labor of preparing a meal is exponentially greater than anything she has experienced, anything for which she has prepared.
Domestic chores are not the only obstacle to Orleanna's happiness. Tiny, malaria-carrying mosquitoes threaten her children. Venomous snakes slither along the ground and hang in the trees. Army ants lay waste to the village and drive the people into the treacherous waters where crocodiles dwell. Gardens must be cultivated, but the rains in Africa defy all Western gardening methods. Men must hunt, but Nathan hunts only for his own cleansing by demanding that the villagers purge their souls. The ordeal of feeding her family and protecting them from the menace that is Africa exhausts Orleanna. She succumbs to helplessness and depression, especially after her youngest, Ruth May, falls sick.
Orleanna leaves the care and feeding of her family to her older daughters who are no better prepared than their mother except that they persevere. Rachel takes over the domestic chores while Leah learns the ways of Africa and African men in particular. In spite of opposition, she joins the hunt in order to bring meat to her family’s table. She becomes her father’s surrogate, performing the duties that he eschews, especially the duty to understand the community that he wishes to save. Leah plays with Nelson, an African boy who works with her family and teaches Leah about African beliefs. She also learns from Anatole, a village teacher and an advocate for her as a huntress.
Only when Orleanna loses her youngest child, Ruth May, does she rise from her bed to walk away from Nathan, from Africa, from her own cowardice, guilt, and shame, compounded by her utter poverty. She has no resources with which to purchase safe passage for her daughters. Ruth May remains behind, buried in the African heat. Rachel flies away from harm with Eben Axelroot, a corrupt, crude mercenary. Leah is delirious, lost in malaria-induced fevers and chills. She cannot travel and stays with Anatole who promises to care for her. Only Adah departs with her mother.
Thus, Orleanna loses her family to Africa. She deserts her demented husband, buries her youngest, surrenders her oldest into the arms of an opportunist, and walks away from another daughter’s sick bed. Orleanna takes up the care of afflicted Adah more earnestly than ever before, almost like a burden deserved. Even when Adah becomes more whole, separate from her mother, Orleanna still kneels in the dirt, working a garden to atone for her failure to protect her children. She seeks forgiveness without hope of attaining it.
Orleanna’s journey, a bildungsroman, requires that she confront her own moral failure to choose between a neglectful, abusive husband and her children in need of protection. She must navigate unknown psychological territory when she confronts her own inadequacies and loses all that she had once dreamed. Orleanna never escapes her own culpability, and she never forgives herself for how her daughters came of age.
Read The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, both by Barbara Kingsolver. In each, you will find complex, sympathetic female protagonists in novels of the bildungsroman type.
Write the story of your own moral and/or psychological crisis and of how it transformed you.
GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Another Apostrophe Lesson for Holiday Greetings
Happy New Year’s Eve tomorrow! May you enjoy time with family and friends.
On New Year’s Day, enjoy the superstitions and traditions of your region. As for me, I will be cooking and serving greens of all sorts to insure economic well-being and black-eyed peas with ham-hock to facilitate progress or kick-start accomplishments. We also plan to enjoy sushi, thereby combining the good luck of circular foods with the gifts associated with fish.
Happy New Year! May 2012 bring you more joy than grief, challenges easily overcome, and triumphs untold.