Heart of Darkness

This is one classic I was never assigned in my voyage through academia. Having recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, I decided now would be a good time to continue the focus on the Belgian Congo with a plunge into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

I found that it’s not really about the Belgian Congo so much as about the human heart. Where Kingsolver relates Congolese culture from an inside, local, personal perspective, Conrad gives literally “drive-by” impressions as his narrator pilots an English steamboat along an unnamed African river to find and bring back a legendary ivory trader named Kurtz. Drawing from his own experience as a visitor to the Belgian Congo in 1890, Conrad makes no attempt to offer an in-depth look at African life, but rather uses his impressions of brutal European colonization as a universal symbol of human fallenness. The actual Africans are only glimpsed from afar, en masse.

He plays with the motifs of light and darkness, using them to stand for (by turns) the light of European ideals of civilization and enlightenment vs. the darkness of African savagery, the light of our views of ourselves vs. the darkness of our true spiritual condition, the light of personal mythology (Kurtz is a figure about whom many myths flourish) vs. the darkness of real character, and the light of true insight vs. the darkness of everyday experience. We’re separated from the action by multiple frames: our initial narrator is a seaman who is a step removed from Marlowe, who tells the African tale;  Marlowe is further separated from the action by the myths about Kurtz. We’re also separated by space and time, as the events of the tale are far away and in the past — even moreso for the modern reader, who isn’t likely to share Marlowe’s stereotypes about savages and the like. Our voyage from our everyday perspective into the insight the story seeks to provide takes us through all these frames and is disorienting at times; the reading experience was a little confusing and dreamlike for me. Somehow I kept missing transitions from one scene to the next, and finding myself immersed in episodes without remembering how I got there. I’m not sure if this is a common experience of reading this novella, or if I was just inattentive or had too many interruptions.

The steamboat Conrad himself piloted in the upper Congo, courtesy of Wikipedia

The “heart of darkness” is a spatial phenomenon as well as a spiritual one. Marlowe finds Kurtz, renowned for his culture and ideals and who has been alleged to be suggestive of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame, at the innermost point of his trek upriver, immersed in a tribe he has convinced of his godlike status and lying in a hut surrounded by heads on stakes. “Who is the real savage here?” Conrad seems to ask. Though his jumping-off point is England, anyone who remembers the Puritan response to natives in America must have wondered the same thing. I couldn’t help but remember Miles Standish’s staking of the heads of particularly troublesome Indians around Puritan forts in Mayflower.

Ideals don’t count for much if your nature is too corrupt to achieve them. I can agree with Conrad on this point. Yet I also can see how ideals force a certain level of accountability; they help us to see the changes that need to be made. This is a staple of high school and college literature classes, and I can see how it would facilitate certain kinds of discussions. But it has nothing at all to offer as an examination of actual cultural differences. One wouldn’t expect this to be an enjoyable or easy read, and for me it wasn’t one. But I can see how at the time of its writing, it represented a daring exploration of the disconnect between theory and practice in the business of colonization and commerce.

The Poisonwood Bible

There are currently 1,545 reviews of this novel already listed at Amazon. What can I possibly add?

Nothing. Yet I’ve just had my own personal experience of the book nonetheless. I blog partly to come to terms with reading experiences, and after such a weighty, sprawling, powerful novel as this, I feel the need to come to terms — or to find the terms — to describe and remember it.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible centers on the family of missionary Nathan Price. In 1959, he takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo planning to impose his warped version of the gospel on the village of Kilanga. He has a knack for making enemies: we learn that his mission is not sanctioned by the mission society of his denomination, and his family has not gone through any of the necessary preparations for living in Africa. The challenges of nature and culture, the political instability of the Congo’s rebellion against Belgian rule, and above all Nathan’s graceless and bitter gospel lay the groundwork for trouble that comes to a head about halfway through the novel. The second half traces the ways the different members of the family react and live out their lives over the next several decades.

We never see inside Nathan Price’s mind, but the other characters — his wife Orleanna, and his daughters Rachel, Leah, Ada, and Ruth May — narrate their own stories. As we rotate from one character’s perspective to another’s, we quickly develop a feel for their personalities and experience their steep learning curve. I marvel at Kingsolver’s character creation; each is distinctive and convincingly realized.

By turns, The Poisonwood Bible made me weep for the pain humans cause, marvel at the beauty of African culture, and wonder over the sometimes heavy-handed political and religious commentary Kingsolver puts into the mouths of her characters.

If I had to choose one overarching theme, it would be the unreliability of knowledge. The history of the Congo (now Zaire) testifies to the conquesting spirit, and the ignorance, of various European entities from Portugal to Belgium to the United States. I felt similar to the way I felt after reading The Kite Runner, a novel about another nation that has suffered under a chain of exploitive foreign rulers. The Prices (at the beginning) reflect the glib optimism of Americans who equate westernization with salvation, and they have no appreciation or understanding of the history of the region they are entering. In microcosm, they act like other nations that have imposed their foreign ideals on the Congo, the story seems to say.

Yet when Leah, who by the novel’s end has become an expert of sorts on Zaire, tours an ancient Congolese palace with crushed human bones worked into the mortar, she reasons that it might have been some kind of reasonable means of population control. Ada, too, reasons that the practice in Kilanga of taking twins into the forest and leaving them there at birth may be similarly motivated. Are we expected to take their speculations seriously? Are we expected to see these forms of murder as somehow reasonable or moral? I hope not. Human understanding, the novel seems to say, is always fatally limited — whether it’s that of exploitive national entities like the Portuguese, who felt it was justifiable to enslave Africans because of mistaken assumptions about race and non-European ways of doing things; or that of Ada and Leah, who are ready to justify an equally despicable chapter of Congolese history out of strong nationalistic feeling.

The politics are not easy to sort out. The novel suggests that the U.S. played a significant part in sabotaging the Congo’s attempt at democracy, supporting a corrupt regime instead. I have had only a superficial knowledge of this, and I ought to learn more. Ignorance may be bliss, but for the characters in this novel it quickly becomes impossible as they are swept into the sometimes unwelcome awareness “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” — or living a year in someone else’s country — can give. But their comprehension of the large events going on while they are in Kilanga — rebellion, democratic election, corruption — is shadowy at best. They arrive with an uncritical acceptance of the trumpeted American values, but eventually they become aware of all kinds of subterranean motives at work at the international level. Understanding of the world, we’re meant to see, is tentative at best.

I felt the tragic weight of this limitation most heavily in the tale’s religious storyline. Nathan Price is a caricature of the evangelist convinced he knows it all, and he has large tracts of the Bible memorized. But he has no idea at all of the Bible’s culminating themes of love, forgiveness, or mercy. He is fixated on the ritual of baptism, and he serves a vengeful, angry God who holds us all to an impossible standard of righteousness. His wake is littered with souls bludgeoned by his personal ideals, and there is no credible counterweight to this brand of Christianity in the novel. The only alternative offered is Brother Fowles, Price’s predecessor at Kilanga, who makes a brief appearance to question the translation and authority of the Bible. As Leah explains, Brother Fowles advises her to

trust in Creation, which is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation. This God does not work in especially mysterious ways. The sun here rises and sets at six exactly. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a bird raises its brood in the forest, and a greenheart tree will only grow from a greenheart seed. He brings drought sometimes, followed by torrential rains, and if these things aren’t always what I had in mind, they aren’t my punishment either…

This reminded me a little of sacred reading in Thomas Merton, which I posted on here. I have no problem with seeing Creation as a manifestation of the character of the God who made it. But I believe the Bible is a form of revelation too, one we needn’t despair of understanding with God’s help — no matter how many times it has been misused and misunderstood throughout history. No one in this novel really gives voice to that hope. But that’s probably just the natural outcome of the spiritual abuse Nathan Price dishes out — total disillusionment.

There are some really beautiful passages in the book, and the frustrations I felt in reading it have been constructive ones. It’s a book that asks searching, troubling questions and creates a sense of personal connection to a land and its people. I understand why there are 1,545 reviews already trying to put its impact into words.


Last year, I was dazzled by Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague. “How do people write books like this?” I wondered. “How can someone research such a seemingly unpromising subject so thoroughly — and then make it sing in a work of fiction?”

March is a book I had mixed feelings about at different points in the reading, but in the final analysis I found it quite thought-provoking and satisfying. Like Year of Wonders, March is well-researched as a historical work. Set during the Civil War, it offers a glimpse into the gritty reality of the Union army in both its principle and practice. But it takes as its subject the rather hallowed March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women — specifically, Mr. March, who is absent from the domestic scene for most of Alcott’s novel, “away down south where the fighting is.”

Brooks explains that since many of the other characters in Little Women are based on real people, she took Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, as a model to expand imaginatively on Mr. March’s character. Alcott was a noted Concord Transcendentalist, a friend to Emerson and Thoreau as well as a vegetarian and primary vision-caster in the Utopian experiment “Fruitlands.” He was born on a Connecticut farm and traveled south as a peddler as a young man. Mr. March resembles him in this detail, as well as in his qualities as an intellectual, vegetarian, radical, and dreamer. But Alcott was not a minister, and it’s as a Unitarian chaplain and fervent Abolitionist that March enlists with the Union army.

Brooks explains in the afterword that when her mother recommended Little Women to her at age 10, she warned her that “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.” Indeed, one of the foundational principles of March seems to be the demythologizing of the Marches, particularly Marmee and Captain March. She is depicted as an angry woman, he as an outwardly proper but inwardly undisciplined man with all kinds of inconsistencies and blind spots as well as a talent for alienating people. Yet somehow, by the end, the pain and horror of war have forged a character that I cared about and admired in some ways. The novel offers a poignant insight into the Marches’ marriage, too, shifting the point of view between March and Marmee and revealing how the two have misunderstood each other at some crucial points, yet still they don’t give up.

What kept me reading, I think, is that the novel is a study of what happens to principle when it’s plunged into what one of the heroic black characters calls “the river of fire.” What happens to March’s grand ideals? What nugget lies at the core of marriage and survives disillusionment? What happens to the Abolitionist cause when fought for by a Union army that includes racists? Though I didn’t buy all the answers Brooks suggests through the action of the novel, I found the questions intriguing and worth asking.

It’s been years since I read Little Women, but of course I have to reread it now — and it’s a free download on the Kindle. Looks like I’ll be hanging out at the Marches’ Concord hearth for awhile!

Goodnight Mister Tom

Goodnight Mister Tom is… heartbreaking. Inspiring. Eye-opening.

It’s heartbreaking because it depicts two ways people can damage and destroy one another: child abuse and war. William Beech, a little boy evacuated from a London slum to the English country village of Weirwold during World War II, comes out of a home where he “didn’t get much lovin’,” as his guardian Tom Oakley puts it. In fact he has been terribly abused in ways that become apparent as the story unfolds. His mother compounds her crimes by inflicting them in the name of the a distorted religious fanaticism.

William’s stay with Tom Oakley is redemptive for both of them. Tom, widowed forty years earlier, is transformed in the project of caring for Willie. “In his grief he had cut homself off from people,” the narrator explains, “and when he had recovered he had lost the habit of socializing.” Gruff, intuitive, and practically compassionate, he provides a stable foundation for William to develop. I found him an inspiring character.

I liked the way that kindness and generosity were depicted in the down-to-earth people of Weirwold. It was a great reminder that sometimes the most profound healing and growth can come from simple things. In an age of specialists, I found this theme refreshing.

So, what’s left? Heartbreaking, check. Inspiring, check. I also found the book eye-opening as a glimpse into a chapter of history I feel like I’m just discovering. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society focused on the British people during this era as well, though the focus was on a different locale. I’m enjoying having my awareness heightened, even though the details of bombing blitzes and evacuees are sobering fare.

This was in the YA section of the library. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger children because the glimpses of abuse and loss might be a bit much to take, even though they are counterbalanced by an ultimately joyful perspective on life. But for teen through adult years this is a captivating, highly recommended read.


The potato peel book

I know. Everyone was reading and talking about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last year, and the year before that too. I can’t say it was even on my TBR list, but I was shelf browsing at the library and there it was. So now I’ve read it.

The basic story has already been summarized many times in the blogosphere. It’s a post World War II epistolary novel about life on Guernsey during and after the German occupation. It’s also a love story between a London author and pretty much everyone she corresponds with, especially one fellow whom she finally marries.

It was an enjoyable read, and here are some of the things it got me thinking about:

  • I’m not immediately attracted to epistolary novels, but all the correspondents here are so witty it held my attention. It reminded me a lot of 84 Charing Cross Road, but with a fuller cast of letter-writers. It got me thinking about whether there are parallels between these epistolary relationships and the ones that form online. In this book the characters meet “IRL,” and no one is disappointed (my lurking fear about meeting anyone from the blogosphere in real life). Is who we are in print closer to our true selves, or further away? Are we better/smarter/more diplomatic in writing than face-to-face? These kinds of questions occurred to me as I read. (I haven’t answered them…)
  • The characters were all much too clever to be believable, actually.
  • The ending felt sudden and predictable — like the authors were playing hide-and-seek, got tired of waiting to be found out, and decided to end things quickly.
  • It was very clever, and for awhile I thought that was all it was. But it brought me to tears more than once, so beneath the entertainment was a human story that pulled my human heartstrings.
  • I learned a little about what the occupation felt like.
  • There was sort of a spiritual theme, worked out through comments the characters made about their readings and their neighbors and their life choices, and through the one stock religious hypocrite character. This was mostly a source of frustration for me, as there were no genuine people of faith featured. Even among the “bad guys” — the Germans — there was one decent character. But not among the Christians.
  • Reading. I really enjoyed the depiction of books as food for the soul, and as footholds of meaning in a chaotic time. The characters respond to their reading in non-academic, deeply personal ways, and virtually everyone in the literary society comes off looking unpretentiously erudite. Is this further evidence of my feeling that the characters are too clever to be believable? Or is it actually the case that when we read — at least, when we read the kinds of classics that these folks read — we can be raised out of sleepy passivity into a higher sphere of thought?

If I were in the habit of rating books, I wouldn’t call this a great one. But I still enjoyed it immensely. It provided for me what my favorite prof in college used to call “an encapsulating aesthetic experience.” There was an effortlessness to reading it. I can see why it has been so popular.

The White Witch

The White Witch is a historical novel about the English Civil War(s) of the 17th century. It is surely one of Elizabeth Goudge’s best works, capturing not only the political conflict of Puritan against Royalist, but the many smaller-scale conflicts that characterize human existence. Some of these conflicts are antagonized by the war, but others are ever-present realities, whether personal, political, or spiritual: citizen vs. gypsy, Protestant vs. Catholic, trust in God vs. trust in magic, love for security vs. love for God. The all encompassing contrast is between God’s mercy and man’s rebellious, often misguided search for redemption.

The white witch of the title is Froniga Haslewood, half gypsy and half gentlewoman, an herbalist and healer whose strength and wisdom she learns ultimately to wield without dependence on the spells and spirits common to her trade. Hers is the anchoring consciousness through which we experience the broad scope of the story and its numerous personalities. Woven of Goudge’s usual poetic and deeply comforting narrative, this is a story I found very satisfying and free of the Gothic trappings of some of her other books.

Some themes will be familiar to those who have read The Dean’s Watch or The Scent of Water, the two books that, with this one, comprise my favorites so far. The idea of substitution, of laying down one’s life for a friend, comes into the tale more than once as characters willingly offer themselves for those too far gone spiritually to be able to find their own way back to God. All the characters are flawed, yet all grow as a holy and glorious God is clearly depicted as working his often mysterious but always redemptive purposes. A recusant priest with shame in his past, turned spy for the Royalists; a black witch who has long ago sold her soul for power over her others; a gypsy matron grown almost to sainthood who retains a single grudge against her niece; these are just a few of the cast of characters in this richly populated book who need to be lifted into a fuller experience of divine love and power.

I was struck again by the compassion Goudge displays for all her characters. One of the contrasts in the story is between Catholic and Protestant, and one scene comes to mind in particular in which Robert Haslewood comes home from war having been won over more fervently to the Puritan cause, and he takes all the homespun decorations in the little church — carvings made by the parson, flowers, even the cross — and sets them on fire as relics of popery. It is Christmas morning, and the people watch in horror — as certainly Goudge does too, yet she manages to portray even Robert sympathetically.

This is a long, multifaceted novel impossible to do justice to in a review. As a Christian, I find Goudge’s fictional world deeply encouraging. It’s a world where God’s spirit, and his unfailing delight, are immanent in his creation — its scents, its sights, its often tragic events and its fallen and struggling people. I have lingered between the covers of this book not only because of its beauty as art, but because of its savor as food for the soul.

Amos Fortune: Free Man

I picked up this Newbery winner by Elizabeth Yates at the big book sale in our area a month or so ago. I recognized the title because I’d wanted to read it for the Decades Challenge this year, but I couldn’t get my hands on a copy and ended up reading something else instead.

I thought it was wonderful. I’ve read Roots, Classic Slave Narratives, poetry by Phyllis Wheatley, and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, so I think (with embarrassment) that I probably approached this story for young readers feeling like I wouldn’t find anything new. But this tale of a young African taken to the American colonies as a slave during the 18th century took me by surprise.

I appreciated it on several levels. Elizabeth Yates’ writing is very simple and unadorned. I’m trying to think of a way to describe its effect… This story is told in an almost myth-like manner in spots, where whole eras of Amos’ life are rendered in a sentence or a paragraph. This keeps the pace moving and makes us ready for the passages that slow down and give a more detailed picture.

I liked the view of 18th century American life, where the good work of tradesmen was rightly valued. Amos is a skilled tanner, and I wondered what he would think of this century of disposable products and stationary, non-physical labor. The story also touches on the problem of poverty; the one crisis in Amos’ married life takes the form of a disagreement over how to respond to an indigent family.

Thematically, Amos’s life illustrates several things I liked being reminded of: the possibility of responding to adversity with grace, the value of skilled, diligent work; the quietness of true heroism; the possibility of maintaining dignity and worth no matter what the world tries to tell you. Amos was a king in Africa before his tribe was abducted, and he maintains that kingly stature despite being cast in the role of a slave. He learns a trade, embraces the Christian faith, and eventually obtains his freedom.

Amos’ freedom, and what he does with it, make for the most touching parts of the storyline for me. He lives redemptively, winning freedom for several others over the course of his life. His tale stirs readers to consider how to leave a similar legacy.