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The Poisonwood Bible

Updated: Jan 10

When I started university, I had no clue what I wanted to study or the career I hoped to have once I graduated. I simply took the required courses (some that interested me and others I was obligated to take), until one class – and one book – pulled me towards studying literature and, eventually, to a career centered around reading and writing.

During my second year, I enrolled in a lower-level English course. On the first day of class, our professor, Mary Metzger (the head of the English Literature Department), made it clear that she was a woman on a mission. She normally only taught higher-level classes, but other professors had told her it was impossible to teach younger students how to write a good paper. She decided to prove them wrong and teach the class herself. I liked her immediately, not only because she was bold and honest, but because she was clearly passionate about what she taught.

As a part of the course, we read The Poisonwood Bible, a beautiful, heartbreaking novel by Barbara Kingsolver about a family who moves to the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to convert as many people to Christianity as possible. The father is belligerent, abusive, racist, and domineering and his wife and daughters are the primary (although certainly not the only) casualties of his behavior.

The story is written from the perspectives of the three daughters and their mother, with each chapter rotating through the characters’ voices and points of view. It spans many years and weaves in the history of the DRC with the lives of these fictional characters.

I had already read and loved the book in high school and was happy to reread it. I didn’t, however, expect to see the story in a whole new light. What English 202 and Mary Metzger revealed to me were the many layers of a well-written story. I had experienced glimpses of this in high school (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter stands out as an example) but this class and this book hit me at the perfect time to really make an impact.

There is, of course, the narrative arc – the story itself. This includes the plot, characters, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The Poisonwood Bible is an excellent story (although it does start a little slow, so if you decide to read it, give it some time). But then there is a deeper level – imagery, metaphor, symbolism, irony. I found myself diving into the words, still enjoying the story but finding more subtle, more significant messages that I hadn’t noticed the first time through.

I knew at that point there was no looking back. All I wanted to do forever was read books and write papers about them. I started by enrolling as an English Literature major.

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