While working on my book proposal, I cast around for something to read that would be deeper than a romance novel, but also not non-fiction that would distract me from the non-fiction I was trying to write. My mom told me she was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, which reminded me that I’d found a copy of Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible in a Little Free Library. I’ve read many of her books before, including The Bean Trees, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, so I cracked it open without really knowing what it’s about.

It’s an epic story/parable about the Price family, specifically mom Orleanna, and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, Evangelicals who are brought to the Congo in 1959 by patriarch Nathan Price. He’s a looming figure in the story — he’s on a quest to “save” African souls by shoving the white man’s way of life on them, and he also beats his wife and children — but we never hear from him. Instead the story is told from the rotating point of view of the five women, who grow and change in radical ways throughout the book, which ends in the 1980s.

Kingsolver lived in Leopoldville, Congo (now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo) herself when she was a child, when her parents worked in the public sector there. She tried to go back while writing the book, but was told it was unsafe to do so, in part because she’d been critical of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. She writes in notes to the book that there were concerns she’d be killed if she traveled there because of it. It doesn’t feel at all as if she wasn’t able to make the trip, though. Her writing is gorgeous, especially about the environment there. I felt in it the whole time.

The Poisonwood Bible turns 25 this year, but still feels fresh because it deals with a lot of the same problems that plague us today, like religion-backed domestic violence, colonial pillaging of African countries (which came up in The Devil’s Element by Dan Egan, which was book 11 of this year), and white supremacy. The way that Nathan (and one of his daughters, I won’t spoil which one) speaks about the people who live in the country they’ve invaded is disgusting, but not far off what we’re hearing from the worst corners of American right now.

Good read, but a heavy one. And despite all that, I’m glad I read it, especially right now.

Nail polish: Dirty Unicorns by Nails, Inc.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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