Books: Hearts of Darkness

Matters of race, religion and gender collide as a missionary family moves to the Congo in 1959

A forest: monkeys, army ants, poisonous frogs. Below, on a path, a woman and four girls, all in shirtwaist dresses. "Seen from above this way," writes novelist Barbara Kingsolver at the outset of The Poisonwood Bible (HarperCollins; 546 pages; $26), "they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve." Fair warning, though what the reader must decide before finishing this turbulent, argumentative narrative goes beyond judging four white American daughters and their mother, set down deep in the Congo in the precarious year 1959.

What follows would...

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