Monday, October 17, 2011

Sequential Fortuity: "Cloudsplitter" and "The Poisonwood Bible"

Oh, the manifold joys of learning through reading fiction! I'm tempted just to leave that sentence there and not explain it, partly because the thought has loosed an unharnessable stampede of other thoughts, a veritable expanding universe right inside my own brain.

It will be awhile before I come down to earth.

At least there's no doubt about who the Creators are. The most recent ones are Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver. Neither I nor they had any idea that they belonged together on the same Olympus or Parnassus, but getting them there was as easy as two people making suggestions at my Nevermore Book Club: Doris and Gary, one for Cloudsplitter (Banks) and the other for The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver), thereby being the Titans that the Creators depended upon. (The pantheon of my life is a pretty crowded place, as you can well imagine.)

And when I say "learning through reading fiction," I certainly don't mean to spite the cranial universes that are made possible through reading nonfiction. Mostly, nonfiction is what I read in order to learn. But to have a world unfold before your very eyes! To put yourself in someone else's cranial universe! Much less someone's shoes: empathy is a mere moon by comparison.

I've been digressing ever since that very first sentence sent me out into a universe from which I'll never return, and from which I must now return (quarks and away!) in order to share the discovery that launched me into that digression: having read Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible back-to-back, I've found that these two books belong back-to-back.

And what has just cemented that opinion is that just now, having written that paragraph, I wondered "I wonder if anyone else has thought about putting them back-to-back?" You know, how you do when you think of a phrase as a good title for a book or a name for a band or a product line for the budding entrepreneur in you, but you have to Google it to be sure nobody's already copped it, and it always seems somebody has. Well, in this case I went to Google to find out, and guess where the two occur back-to-back? In a list of books given as examples of the kind of fiction that qualifies for the prize that Barbara Kingsolver funds!  Mind you, this is just a coincidence of the two titles together one after another on a list, but hey: it's Barbara Kingsolver's list. So it's not like I'm completely without gravity, here.

What is it, then, about the two books that demand they be read sequentially? At the center of each is an individual who is determined to impose his Christian-God-inspired vision upon a society that resists. In fact, more than resisting, the society in large part actively repels the vision. And, remember, it's a society. As opposed, remember, to an individual.

In Banks's case, the individual is the famous abolitionist John Brown, who was famously executed after failing in an attempt to foment a massive slave revolt by seizing a Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown is commonly depicted as a crazy man--wild eyes, long unkempt beard, brandished rifle. I had always wondered if in fact he was crazy. Cloudsplitter is told as the memoir of his son Owen, who--according to this account--played a crucial role in bringing his father to act on well-reasoned, religious beliefs he had long held, and to act in such a way that required killing others in pursuit of his vision of freedom and equality for the enslaved Negro.

In Kingsolver's case, the individual is the Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who follows a call to the Congo in the late 1950's, during the last days of Belgian colonialism. His unwavering vision is the conversion to Christianity of African souls through the mechanism of immersion. The African souls resist the notion, given that the local baptistry is a crocodile-infested river. But Rev. Price refuses to let any of the realities of Africa dilute the purity of his faith: his realities are the only ones that matter.

Revolving around these central characters driven by unfaltering faith in a Christian God are their families. Brown's sons do not share his faith, but they share at least to some extent a belief in the justice he seeks, revere him as their leader, and are willing to die alongside him. Price's daughters (in whose voices Kingsolver tells her story), unshielded by the armor of God, bear the brunt of the African reality's parasites, pests, and poisons--indigenous biological ones and invading political ones. But the daughters have a life, at least--the tragic mixed with the blessings of love and learning--whereas the father pursues his vision of salvation until he reaches it, alienated and alone, at the hands of those he is trying to save. His life is all about death.

Both books depend on history. Banks, as Owen Brown's "memoirist," is to some extent the vessel of historical record--but to what extent? Kingsolver has been criticized for writing a tendentious novel upon which to hang an anti-American agenda. But with books such as these, history is only an excuse to engage morality. Humanity hangs in the balance: who can sway us? Do we bring faith to the world, or bring the world to faith? Which martyr will we follow, and which will we burn?

The answers expand outward, growing with the universe brought about by the collision of Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible.

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