Friday, January 6, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible: Leah's Coming-of-Age Story


Orleanna’s story is a bildungsroman; her daughter Leah's is a coming-of-age tale like Noah Zarc, Christine, and Super 8. Leah metamorphoses from a daughter devoted to her father into a woman devoted to family and community.

As a girl, Leah longs to walk in her father’s shadow. She accompanies him while he makes a garden in Africa, using the techniques he learned while growing up in Georgia. He lectures Leah as he digs and sows, defying a village woman when she shows him a better way to grow plants in Africa. He believes himself superior in all ways because he is the self-appointed messenger of a Christian God. When the insidious Africa rains wash away his seeds, the rows in which they rested, and every trace of his garden, Nathan abandons his efforts to tend to his garden in spite of God’s command that every man after Adam do so. Nathan’s proud knees will not bend even when another way shows itself.

Seeing her father, Nathan, grow increasingly bitter, abusive and neglectful, Leah turns to other mentors, including the village teacher and translator, Anatole, and Nelson, a boy who works for the Price family in exchange for a place to sleep. From them, Leah learns about Africa and African ways. Nelson, for example, shows her many survival skills. More important perhaps, he shows her that African children do not enjoy a childhood as American children do. From early ages, African children climb trees to retrieve foods, they hunt, and they labor. Leah observes that all Africans, adults and children, tend to the garden that is Africa. They abide when the bounty is slight; they give when the bounty is good.

Anatole gives expression to the lessons that Leah experiences in the company of Nathan. He explains want and need, informing Leah that people have little imagination for independence and after-life rewards when basic human survival is at stake. Through him, Leah begins to admire African stoicism, and she begins to fall in love with Anatole who is supportive, understanding, and intellectual. He loves his country and countrymen; he opposes Western interference and abuse, and he is willing to strive for independence and African self-sufficiency even if doing so puts him in danger.

As Leah bears witness to her father’s Christianity, she begins to appreciate the pantheistic, pragmatic Africans. She realizes that her father’s version of Christianity is severe, judgmental, and arrogant. Nathan Price is a cruel shepherd while Brother Fowles, a Catholic missionary, is a gentle shepherd who welcomes pantheists and Christians into the same fold. Ultimately, Leah abandons both the Christian church and the U.S., preferring the stark necessity of Africa to the wasteful abundance at home. She defies the racial divide and marries Anatole. Together, they make a garden, welcoming refugees who flee the chaos and revolution created by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a death sanctioned and ordered by the U. S. The man installed in Lumumba’s place is a cruel dictator, and thus, basic survival once again is the most important need among Africans.

Leah grows from a naïve girl who adores her father and accepts his pronouncements without question into a thoughtful, hard-working woman and mother who teachers her children the fine art of good deeds and empathy instead of the imminent danger of Hell. She comes of age wiser and kinder than the man who gave her life.

Reading Challenge:

As I said last week, 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.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate the events that sowed seeds of doubt in your mind about your family’s faith, politics, or homeland. Be sure to develop your essay or story to the point of resolution. Did you change? If so, how. Did you reassert the family faith, those politics, your patriotism? If so, why?

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Although I have taken up this matter once before (on November 5, 2010), I should review the use of foreign words because bildungsroman does not roll off the tongues of most English speakers and is not a word often seen in print unless one happens to be a literary geek. So from November 5, 2010:

Several years ago, one of my students shared the following with me: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar” (James D. Nicoll). We enjoyed laughing about the fact that the English vocabulary has grown because English-speakers freely borrow words and phrases from other languages, phrases such as femme fatale [or words such as bildungsroman, both presented with an italicized font because:] If at least one of the words is unfamiliar to English speakers, then italicize both words so the reader will not puzzle over them and will quickly recognize them as being from another language, ....

Technically, writers do not need to italicize the phrase more than once, only the first time it's used.  I elected not to do this because the blogs teach a term, offering both definition and examples. Thus, italics helped me emphasize the term as I explained it, and emphasis is one of the chief uses of italics.

Many foreign words are well-known to English readers. Femme fatale and blasé are but two examples of words stolen in French alleys to bring into the bright, light of common English day. Neither one must be italicized today, but again, to emphasize a term being explained, an italic font is appropriate.

The German word, weltanschauung [or bildungsroman], on the other hand, is less familiar to English speakers and readers. An italicized font would be useful, but italics are not even required for weltanschauung because it has a place in the dictionary among other English words and phrases.

So if the word is uncommon and foreign, italicize it. If the word, though uncommon and foreign, is in the dictionary, you may omit the italicized font. If you wish to emphasize the word or phrase, foreign or not, italicize it.