voting

A few of my Facebook friends from Texas began posting this week about early voting, and I wondered whether that is an option here in Massachusetts. But then I remembered that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for next month. And the choice is not between the president and Gov. Romney, which anyone who knows me might suspect. I am considering voting for a third-party candidate.

inauguration watermelon, just part of the Oba-mania in D.C. in early 2009; photo by salem pearce

I voted for Obama last time, and I was proud to do so — to be a part of history, and as a symbol of my hope for a new era after the horror of Bush years. I didn’t think Obama was going to forever change U.S. politics, as so many of my friends seemed to (a Hillary supporter originally, I was slow to warm up to the eventual candidate), but it was a thrill to vote for the first black president of the United States in that country’s capital, an historically black district. I happily waited in a long line that beautiful morning in November 2008 outside my voting location, the Metropolitan A.M.E Church. And I was proud to cast my vote that day even though Obama was projected to win the district — and of course did with almost 93% of the vote (more about that below).

But Obama as president has disappointed — and on more than one occasion, infuriated — me, as I know he has many progressives. He ran liberal as a candidate and then as president ran straight to the center (although I don’t think he is as bad as President Clinton in that way). To name a few issues:

The president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “indefinite definition” clause, a provision that allows for military imprisonment of U.S. citizens. (This law also makes the closing of Guantanamo — a campaign promise — more difficult.)

The president has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his term, despite a campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

The president has ramped up federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, despite a campaign promise to end them.

And this Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has quadrupled (unofficially unacknowledged) drone attacks in Pakistan against terrorist suspects.

This is to say nothing of my devastation at the president’s refusal to speak out, as a black man with black daughters, about issues affecting black folks. And as I noted at the time, I was not impressed with his declaration of support for marriage quality.

I recognize that these are not everyone’s issues. And there are also things that the president has done which I’ve loved, such as health care reform and repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, I think that at this point my concern outweighs my estimation.

To be clear, I do not consider Gov. Romney any kind of alternative (not the least because he doesn’t differ from the president on the above issues), and I am fairly confident that the president is going to win re-election. More importantly for the decision at hand, the president is sure to win my state of Massachusetts. If I lived in a swing state, the president would have my vote in an instant, and this thought exercise would not exist.

The other choices in Massachusetts are the Libertarian ticket, featuring former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and the Green-Rainbow ticket, featuring Dr. Jill Stein (a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), both of whom have positions that I find appealing — and who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy on the four issues I mentioned above. According to this highly scientific website, I agree with Stein on 94% of issues and with Johnson on 82% (and Obama isn’t actually all that far behind with 72%).

But of course neither of them will draw anything more than 1% of the vote in Massachusetts. And I don’t know that I want either of them to actually be president: Stein in particular, by her dearth of political experience, is in no way qualified, and neither has been scrutinized and vetted on a national scale as I would expect to be the candidates for the most powerful job in the nation. Plus, I don’t agree with many parts of the Libertarian platform.

So I know who will carry Massachusetts; a vote for any other candidate won’t affect the fact that the electoral college votes will go to the president. Before I can answer the question of who I should vote for, I need to answer the question of why I vote.

Tritely, I believe that voting is my civic duty, part of living in a democratic society. The possibility of voting engages me with my elected officials and the issues that affect me, and the act of voting is a symbol of my investment in that society. I vote because so many others (particularly legions of felony drug-offenders, whose punishment does not end with serving time and who the vast majority of states strip of the right to vote) can’t.

taxation without representation; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I lived for years in the District of Columbia without Congressional representation (despite paying federal taxes as all other U.S. citizens). On principle, that’s enough to propel me to the voting booth as often as I can, if for no other reason than to elect members of Congress who will give D.C. residents representation. Which reminds me of another way in which the president has madden me: He has done nothing to advance D.C. Congressional representation in Congress — and didn’t do so even when he had a super-majority in Congress. He wouldn’t even show symbolic support for the issue — which results in disproportional disenfranchisement of black folks — by putting the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.

As it turns out, voting is not rational, as this 2005 New York Times article articulates nicely. It’s inefficient and ineffectual. There is almost no chance that my individual vote will affect the outcome. If I believe that it is nevertheless important — and many things in this life are both irrational and important (the Libertarian Party probably doesn’t even want my vote now!) — what are the considerations for who gets my vote?

Do I vote for a candidate about whom I have serious reservations but who is going to win, because that projection is based on people like me voting for him, and if everyone behaved otherwise, he wouldn’t win?

Do I vote for a candidate with whom I have more agreement but who has no chance of winning — and who I actually don’t want to see win anyway? Is there value — for myself, for society — in a symbolic vote?

I just don’t know, and I continue to struggle with these questions, which feel very important to me. There’s a chance that I don’t decide until I actually get to my voting place on November 6.

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

decision

This is perhaps more than a little anti-climactic now, since it says so in more than one place on this blog, but . . . I’ve decided to go to Hebrew College, the transdenominational rabbinical school in Boston (or, more accurately, Newton Centre).

It was in some ways a very simple choice. When I visited the first time in November, there was a moment — that scared me, that I didn’t talk about with anyone at the time — when I just knew: This is right. This is where I want to be. I didn’t want to say it aloud because I knew I wasn’t going to make a decision based just on a feeling. I was also not ready to put that intention out into the universe.

Besides, one of the most important things I took away from my tour of rabbinical schools is how great all of them are. It was amazing to see how each institution is so seriously engaged in thinking about how best to train rabbis to serve the Jewish people. I loved meeting the deans of admissions, faculty, and students at each school: They are all amazing people. I honestly believe I would have been happy at any of the four I applied to. In addition to other factors, it came down to which I thought would be the best fit. (More about that below.)

The decision was also simple in another, more surprising, way. In mid-March, after I’d received my acceptances, I narrowed the choice down to two schools in two cities: Hebrew College, and Reconstructionist Rabbinical School (RRC) in Philadelphia. I’d gotten the idea that my husband was leaning more towards the latter, and since I really wanted the decision to be transparent and mutually agreed upon and beneficial, I began to prepare for a lengthy conversation. I taped a piece of butcher paper on the door into the living room; it was divided into two sections, one for each city. We began to write down the pros and cons of each city and school. (Some of the more amusing cons were “Pats fans” and then “Eagles and Phillies fans.” In retrospect, we clearly should have added “Bruins fans” to that list.)

Shortly afterwards, I was looking at the paper and my husband came up to me and said, “Do we need to do this? I want to go to Boston.” And that was that.

On my conviction that Hebrew College is the best fit for me: During my interview, both Rabbi Art Green (a professor and one of the founders) and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld (the dean) helped me to clarify my thinking on the issue. As Rabbi Green noted, the emphasis at RRC is on history, as reflected in its curriculum; Reconstructionism views Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, so each year is spent immersed in an historical period (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern and contemporary). Rabbi Green knows from what he speaks: He was the dean of RRC for six years.

At Hebrew College, the emphasis is on text, as reflected in its curriculum, in which each year is spent immersed in a book of Torah. Let’s face it: I was a Classics major for a reason. I spent my undergraduate years learning Latin and Greek — and then reading texts in the original. (There was a little culture and history thrown in, but not much.) And then I went on to learn German and Russian for the same reason. More than most things, I love reading and translating text. Grammar, syntax, vocabulary, sentence structure, nuances of meaning — they all thrill me. Simply put, I am a text dork.

yeminite beit midrash by geula twersky

But “best fit” also means something else to me. As I realized in my Hebrew College interview, RRC would have been, in some ways, the “safer” choice. The school, its students, and its alums are know for their political engagement (among other things). In that sense, I would fit right in. In contrast, Hebrew College, as a transdenominational school, doesn’t have the same political homogeneity. I anticipate that I will find it quite challenging at times to go to school with people who have different opinions than I do in this area. For one, I don’t have much experience; I tend to surround myself with like-minded people (as do most of us). Relatedly, I don’t have much patience with non-progressives/radicals.

The other aspect of a Hebrew College education that I expect to find challenging is its required beit midrash hours. Beit midrash literally means “house of study” and refers to the places of Torah study that the early rabbis used. In rabbinical schools, the beit midrash is a library that encourages talking, because studying there is done b’chevrutah (with a partner). Part of a transdenominational education is learning from others who may have different (in this case religious) viewpoints. But in general, the school values partnered learning, which means I’ll be required to spend several hours each week studying with someone else. As an introvert who prefers to work alone rather than in a group, I’ll thus have to work hard to make sure I am getting enough recharging time.

I’ve framed these last two factors in a negative way; indeed, it’s the challenge of them that appeals to me. I need to push myself out of my comfort zone. Doing so, I will be a better rabbinical student, and a thus a better rabbi.

Finally — and I can’t emphasize enough how awesome this was — my interview at Hebrew College ended with the room singing a niggun (wordless melody). What’s not to love?

distopiae

orphan master's sonI woke up on Sunday to a cold, rainy day, nixing my plans to do the first round of planting in my garden. Instead, I stayed inside and read all day. After I finished Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son — a novel about a young man’s many careers under the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il — I took a quick walk to the D.C. public library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch to pick up a book on hold for me, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the YA genre, I haven’t been purposefully avoiding the novel — as I generally did with Harry Potter, for instance, the faux Latin of which set my teeth on edge. (I initially experienced a similar dread with the name of the country in The Hunger Games, Panem, but that’s where the Latin ended — and that reference was A) actually Latin and B) appropriate to the circumstance.)

I’d heard great things about Collins’s novel from people whose opinions I trust, and I even gave the book to my sister-in-law for Christmas last year based on those opinions. It was the hype around the movie — and the racism by its purported fans that it engendered — that finally piqued my curiosity. And the book was worth the wait: I read it straight through, finishing in a few hours by Sunday night.

My first reaction as I started reading, though, was, “Didn’t I just finish a novel about a central state government that tries to control its citizens in a society of a reality at odds with ideology?” And so I had, and so here I am, reviewing the two seemingly disparate novels together.

They certainly give each other a run for their money in terms of being disturbing — but also in being compelling. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately have managed to be suspenseful despite telling a story with a foregone conclusion (as for example here and here), and The Orphan Master’s Son was a complete break with that trend. I really had no idea what was going to happen next, much as the hapless denizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the book. (Well, I had the tiniest inkling from the outset, but I had no clue how Johnson could possibly get there.) Pak Jun Do, the orphan who isn’t, climbs through his impossibly regimented society, going from the backwater Chongjin to the capital Pyongyang as army tunneler, state kidnapper, naval intelligence officer, and finally the prestigious Minister of Prison Mines. Through the 1982-esque propaganda that works indefatigably to make the “Dear Leader” seem like the greatest leader of the greatest nation on earth, it takes a lot of blood and torture to get Jun Do across the country and its class divide; Johnson’s work is not for the squeamish.

The Hunger Games also manages suspense despite the fact that a reader has to expect that a narrator of a to-the-death battle royal is likely going to make it out alive. The Buffy-like protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes a journey similar to that of Jun Do, from her home in District 12, the furthest outpost of the country Panem (which rose from the ruins of North America), to its capital. And she also takes on a new identity, as a competitor in the annual death match.

Side note: Regarding the “controversy” of casting black actors in the movie roles, I just about burst out laughing when Katniss explains, on her train trip to the Capitol, that it “was built in a place once called the Rockies.” I have family in Denver and spent many a summer there and environs, and my cousin and I regularly remark on how homogeneously white Colorado is. (Of course, that reminds me of one of my favorite Tracy Jordan lines ever.) Panem isn’t that different from North America, which means that people of color in the future probably live in the worst parts of that country, too. So astute readers shouldn’t have been at all shocked that a contestant from an outlying district, furthest from the prosperous Capitol, would be black. (Based on the book, the real surprise should have been that Katniss is played by a white actress, although I suppose not really in the whitewashing of Hollywood casting.) Then again, readers who can’t understand that “satiny brown skin” denotes a person of color are pretty much idiots.

Collins’s story is a little easier to take, despite that the fact that it features teenagers killing each other for sport. This is partly because Katniss is an unequivocal hero, pure in heart and deed: Collins carefully constructs the narrative so that Katniss kills only indirectly or with complete justification. The reader has to root for her, especially against the backdrop of the depravity of the other competitors — and of the society itself; indeed, Panem’s televised games were ostensibly established as punishment for rebellion against the Capitol, but it seems clear that entertainment was just as important a factor. Likewise, the extreme control in the DPRK stems from banal pandering to Kim’s ego, and Jun Do’s battering at the whims of the Dear Leader is in the main heartbreaking (although it stands to reason that a character in a “grown-up” novel might be more nuanced.)

Both societies are of course meant to be horrifying. But there are uncomfortable similarities with our own. Collins makes this clear by locating Panem in the not-so-distant future; she’s also stated that she drew inspiration for the novel while channel surfing, switching between a competition-based piece of reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, when the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way.”

The hallmark of Johnson’s DPRK is the contrast between what is said and what is done — which dissonance I’ve been thinking about in the U.S. recently, especially as it relates to motherhood. Pundit Hilary Rosen caused a firestorm a few weeks ago with comments about Ann Romney’s work as a homemaker. Taking the cake for dumbest “controversy” of the election season so far, Rosen’s statement and its aftermath led to an endless series of inane responses lionizing the work of mothers (as if Rosen, a parent of two, were somehow unaware of her own role). But the truth is that we as a society don’t in any way value motherhood — or more accurately, all mothers — in the way we love to claim we do, as Katha Pollitt so trenchantly articulates. The doublespeak on this and many other issues do the Dear Leader proud.

anatomy of injustice

Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice reads like a true-crime thriller, and I would say I enjoyed if I hadn’t spent the entire book alternating between anger and horror. A New York Times reporter, Bonner wrote the book from his journalism research, which started in Texas after then-Governor George Bush — who had presided over more executions than any other governor in history — stated on Meet the Press, “I’m confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas on my watch has been guilty of the crime charged and has full access to the courts. I’m confident.”

Since Governor George Ryan of Illinois had just two weeks before suspended the death penalty in his state because of eleventh-hour exonerations of several condemned prisoners, Bonner and a colleague were first sent to Texas, and then later other states, to investigate Bush’s claim and the state of the death penalty in America today. Anatomy examines just one of the many cases they looked into: that of Edward Lee Gilmore, a young black man of limited intelligence convicted of murder in South Carolina in a seven-day trial.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not impartial on this issue. I think capital punishment is just the most egregious evidence that our criminal justice system is broken (second only to the atrocities of mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, and drug war, among others). One of my dream jobs would be to work against the death penalty as a rabbi.

So it wasn’t going to take much to convince me of the miscarriage of justice. Tragically, it took 30 years to convince those who could actually do something for Elmore. He had three trials before he was sentenced to death for the last time, and it took almost 20 years to locate a potentially exonerating piece of evidence that the state thought was lost. The book ends before Elmore’s saga does: Last month, Elmore left a courthouse in Greenwood as a free man for the first time since 1982.

Bonner chose the case as emblematic of the many death penalty cases that occur in the 36 states in our country that allow the punishment. He notes, “Elmore’s story raises nearly all of the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.”

It’s because so many death penalty cases have at least one of these issues that Elmore’s story is sadly familiar, so I won’t go into the details of his story. Bonner is able to make the case for Elmore’s innocence, overwhelming in the narrative and affirmed by his later release, even more compelling by being able to pretty reliably point to the real perpetrator, a neighbor with whom the victim was suspected of having an affair and who died years before Bonner started covering the case. He “discovered” the body and pointed the original investigators to Elmore, and they never even considered the former a suspect.

edward lee elmore, a few years before his arrest for murder

Several things struck me as I read. Abysmally represented at his original trials, Elmore benefited immensely from later (competent, not to mention tenacious and passionate) counsel from the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. This is typical of many of these cases: The best representation is available on appeal. A huge part of Elmore’s experience was the direct result of the complete incompetence of his original lawyers. There are many dedicated lawyers and law students today working on the cases of death row inmates, so why aren’t more of them clamoring to be the original lawyers on these cases? Indeed, the book makes clear that one of the enormous hurdles that Elmore had to overcome during all the years of appeals was that, despite massive evidence of defense ineptitude, no one wanted to imply that previous lawyers, juries, and judges had made a mistake (especially not multiple times), or perhaps more perniciously, were racist or classist (which of course they were). It seems to me that the priority of death penalty opponents should be ensuring that those accused of crimes eligible for capital punishment get the best representation at their initial trials.

Secondly, Bonner devotes a good number of pages discussing the differing roles of prosecutor and defense attorney. The book opens with two epigrams on the subject from Supreme Court cases. Justice Byron White:

Law enforcement officers have the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent. They must be dedicated to making the criminal trial a procedure for the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of a crime. . . . But the defense counsel has no such comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth. Our system assigns him a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty.

In other words, defense lawyers’ primary responsibility is to their clients, guilty or not; prosecutors’ primary responsibility is to the truth. Bonner argues that this prescription for prosecutors has gotten lost — and in the vacuum has risen a culture that values winning above all. Today, prosecutors of death penalty cases are generally more interested in convictions, in assigning blame for (what are often heinous) crimes, in assuaging public outrage and fear, in securing “justice” for the families of victims. Perhaps some of these are admirable, or at least understandable. But ultimately, Bonner argues, prosecutors are derelict in their duties when they lose sight of the fact that they are instead (or at least also) supposed to strive to protect the innocent.

What I know about the practice of law could fit into a coffee cup (just as everything I know about law school I learned from Legally Blonde, as I am fond of telling my amused law student interns), so please excuse my ignorance when I say that I simply didn’t know this legal principle. In popular culture, particularly in sympathetic portrayals of wrongly convicted criminals, prosecutors are routinely portrayed as cravenly careerist and eager to convict. While that may be an at least a somewhat accurate portrayal of reality, it’s not what the law proscribes. And Bonner’s book is an object lesson of why not.

the women behind the missionaries

caleb's crossingI recently tore through both Caleb’s Crossing and The Poisonwood Bible. The first is Geraldine Brooks’ latest, published last year. I’ve read all of her fiction; her Pulitzer-prize-winning March is one of my favorite books.

The second is perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s most well known work, which I’ve never picked up before. Last year I inherited my grandmother’s copy, which made the reading all the sweeter, knowing that she once enjoyed it. It’s a hardcover, so I assume she bought it shortly after it was published 15 years ago. One of her familiar address labels is affixed on the inside flap of the dust jacket.

I just happened to read them in succession (I’m trying to read more fiction), and they dovetail nicely. They’re both set against backgrounds of historical events, and the narrators of both are daughters of American clergymen bent on converting native cultures to Christianity (the Wampanoag on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in Brooks’ novel, and the Congolese in Kingsolver’s). Sadly, though the settings are separated by 400 years, the Price sisters in the 1960s are offered just about as little opportunity as Bethia Mayfield in the 17th century: All of the girls hear a constant refrain about the uselessness of educating women. But in both tales, these women are much smarter, shrewder, braver, and more interesting than their naive missionary fathers.

Caleb’s Crossing is an ill-fitting name for Brooks’ work. Though it’s inspired by the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, the story belongs wholly to Bethia Mayfield, who achieves the book’s more lasting crossing: from the narrow realm of women’s chores to the limitless world of men’s education, from Puritanism to Wampanoag culture and back again, from her sister’s caretaker to scullery maid to wife and mother. She befriends the eponymous Caleb, the heir apparent to the Wampanoag who believes that being fully a part of the Mayfields’ white, Christian world represents the best chance for him to ensure the survival of his people. Caleb studies English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew indefatigably (yes, I was jealous), gains admission to Harvard, and graduates with honors, doing better than many of his white counterparts. But the price he pays is extremely high, and the reader knows that all of his efforts ultimately will not save the Wampanoag. Through the plot’s twists, Bethia is able to accompany him to the mainland, and it is she who is more successfully changed for the experience.

One of the hardest things as a modern reader is to fathom the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be “civilizing” cultures, remaking others in their own image. I felt unspeakably sad reading about the changes Bethia describes that Caleb undergoes as he moves from robust hunter to sallow scholar. The same process in historical fiction such as this and other books of the genre (like Things Fall Apart) makes me, to be blunt, hate white people. The story of the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible is made only slightly less painful by the fact that the village of Kilanga is largely immune to Reverend Price’s proselytizing.

It helps that Price is something of a ridiculous character (in contrast to Mayfield’s earnest and ethical attempts to engage the Wampanoag): His daughters note his mispronunciation of the Lingala word bangala, which, depending on how it’s said, can mean “dearly beloved” or “poisonwood tree,” leaving Price to preach week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. But Price is lucky to have this gaffe to humanize him, because he is otherwise a vile character. His cultural arrogance and condescension are insufferable, and his complete inflexibility, even in the face of danger because of the country’s unrest (the political turmoil of the post-colonial era), rips apart his family. I spent most of the book hoping for him a violent death. It’s his daughters, who take turns talking about their experience in Congo and afterwards, who charm and delight, even in the midst of their tragedies.