Society is rooted in illusion

November 03, 2011|Lisa Prejean

"We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It's everyone's, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization."

Such is the lament of Adah in Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible." Adah's struggle in repairing a lifelong rift with her twin sister culminates in her decision to accept things the way they are.

It's so much easier and yet much more difficult.

The relationship struggles in Kingsolver's novel are disturbing. At the same time, they are compelling.

A father takes his wife and four daughters from their Georgia home to the heart of the Belgian Congo. His purpose is noble: Help the natives by sharing his faith.

However, his approach is misinformed and off-base.

The year is 1959. His family deals with preconceived racial and religious perceptions.

On the mission field, they start out strong in a literal sense, brushing away the spider webs in their path through the jungle.

Because there is much they do not know, they falter time and again.

Baptism is constantly on the father's mind because that would be one outward sign of his success.

If he has converts, they will get baptized. That will be evidence that he is doing a good job. This journey to the jungle would have meaning and worth.

What he doesn't know, though, is that the village families never allow their children to swim in the river.

They think he is trying to kidnap their children and feed them to the crocodiles as some sort of sacrificial religious rite.

I wanted to enter the pages of the book and explain this to him.

Even though I tried, he didn't listen. Imagine that.

He feels the villagers' suspicion and classifies it as their unbelief and his failure.

At the same time, he is dogmatic and relentless with his daughters, who seem imprisoned by his iron will.

I found myself lost in the family's quest for purpose and fulfillment.

Kingsolver's work encourages readers to examine possible misperceptions they have about people and relationships.

Are things really as they seem or is there much to learn about the people who surround us?

I think we all know the answer to that one. It's why we keep asking questions, keep looking for answers, keep trying to find solutions ... and keep reading good literature.

To think this journey started when I was perusing a reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature.

Perhaps someday I'll teach the course, I thought, so it would be best to read some of the suggested titles.

Hmmm ... wonder which cover I'll open next.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send email to

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