“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost coverMy grasp on world history is somewhat lacking, and I’m always looking for good books so that I can fix that – Wikipedia tends to be too dry for me. I’d vaguely heard of King Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo, and I thought it was something I needed to know more about, so I was excited to find King Leopold’s Ghost a few months ago in the clearance section at Half Price Books.

If you’ve heard of King Leopold II of Belgium, I don’t need to tell you what this book is about. If you haven’t, he was the second monarch of Belgium, and at one point, the sole owner of the Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

How did that happen? Belgium was surrounded by countries that held vast colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and Leopold badly wanted a colony of his own. However, all around Europe, monarchs were losing power to parliament, and colonialism was losing favour. After looking all over the world and attempting to buy colonies from every major power, he set his sights on the unexplored parts of Africa, and shrewdly declared his interest as purely humanitarian and scientific. For more details, you’ll have to read this book (or some other account.)

This is a very well-written and readable book – Hochschild did an admirable job of sketching out the characters of the major players involved in the story of the Belgian Congo. I really felt like I got to know every one of them – I despised King Leopold for his avarice and ostentation, I admired Casement’s sheer passion and Morel’s determination, I rooted for Sheppard. Even though the things that happened were unspeakably horrific, it was never forceful or melodramatic. Hochschild states the facts and quotes accounts and lets you draw your own conclusions.

Hochschild clearly does have a few biases – his tone is sometimes a bit too moralistic for my taste. For instance, although King Leopold seems like an intensely loathsome person, I think his part was a result of apathy rather than an actively evil personality.

I wish I’d read this before I read The Poisonwood Bible – it would’ve given me some much needed context. Highly recommended.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 1998 | Buy the book

“The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is not the type of book I usually read. Generally, most of my reading is escapist – where the world is exciting and people are having a more interesting life than I am, and I want to switch places with them. (I assume they’d probably want to switch places with me too, since they don’t know that they’re in a book and everything’s going to be okay at the end.)

I would definitely not want to switch places with Orleanna Price or any of her four daughters. The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, a zealous and uncompromising Baptist missionary who drags his wife and daughters to the Belgian Congo. They are totally unprepared for what that means, and all sorts of unpleasant surprises ensue. Most of this arises from Nathan’s total refusal to let Africa bend him to her will (as he thinks of it – I’d call it being adaptable.) In addition, the Congo is in the midst of gaining independence from Belgium, and major world powers are very interested in controlling the valuable resources of the fledgling new nation.

This book is definitely going to stay with me for a while. I think Kingsolver did an excellent job of depicting life in Africa, although you should take that with a few grains of salt since I’ve never been there. It did ring true, though. All the characters – Orleanna, Adah, Leah, Rachel and Ruth May also seemed like real people, and all very different. I didn’t have to look at the chapter headings to see whose viewpoint it was. Ruth May was charming in the way she reported things without understanding what the meant, Adah made a lot of sense as the “crippled” girl that was actually the keenest learner, Leah’s devotion to her father was pretty heartbreaking and Rachel was also believable, although I didn’t really like her from the start.

I identified most with Adah – her limp, her palindrome poems and her quirky but organised mind made a lot of sense to me.

I didn’t know very much about the history of the Congo/Zaire, so the background of the book was fascinating. However, Leah and Rachel seemed to embody extremes on the political spectrum, and although I liked the contrast, I wouldn’t take either of their opinions as fact. (I think that they are plausible opinions for the characters, though.) I’ve seen criticisms that the author was being preachy, but I think it was just Leah’s character being preachy and Rachel being a little underdeveloped at the end. I kept hoping that Rachel would redeem herself, but she didn’t ever seem to.

There is no neat little bow of an ending, and the characters remain flawed in the end, even though they grow up noticeably. That’s why I don’t read books like this (general award/prize winning books) often – even though I appreciate them and I think they are masterfully done, they leave me very sad. Please note that I don’t mean to insult The Poisonwood Bible by lumping it into an arbitrary category – I think it was unique.

This is book 14 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 1999 | Buy the book