Summary and book reviews of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1998, 543 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 1999, 560 pages

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Book Summary

Set in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, The Poisonwood Bible takes its place alongside the classic works of post-colonial literature, establishing Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it--from garden seeds to Scripture--is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband's part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters--the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father's intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

Dancing between the dark comedy of human failings and the breathtaking possibilities of human hope, The Poisonwood Bible possesses all that has distinguished Barbara Kingsolver's previous work, and extends this beloved writer's vision to an entirely new level. Taking its place alongside the classic works of post colonial literature, this ambitious novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

An Excerpt from Part 1:
The Things They Carried
Leah Price.

We came from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. "And heaven knows," our mother predicted, "they won't have Betty Crocker in the Congo."

"Where we are headed, there will be no buyers and sellers at all," my father corrected. His tone implied that Mother failed to grasp our mission, and that her concern with Betty Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church. "Where we are headed," he said, to make things perfectly clear, "not so much as a Piggly Wiggly." Evidently Father saw this as a point in the Congo's favor. I got the most spectacular chills, just from trying. But considering the lilies as we might, our trimming back got us nowhere close to the sixty-one pounds, even with Rachel's beauty aids. We were ...

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Plot Summary
God's Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory. So fourteen-year-old Leah Price expects when, in the summer of 1959, she arrives in the Congo with her family. Her Baptist-preacher father, Reverend Nathan Price, assigned to Kilanga mission, is determined to enlighten the savages and to rule his family with strict biblical sanction. Leah's twin, Adah, the victim of hemiplegia at birth, limps along and maintains silence. Fifteen-year-old Rachel resents being dropped on "this dread dark shore" far from America's fashions and comforts. Ruth May, five years old, faints. And their mother, Orleanna, readies herself to protect them all from whatever perils may come--from jungle, river, or father and his terrible God. From 1959 through ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

Kingsolver's powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption and the 'dark necessity' of history.

People

Beautifully written . . . Kingsolver's tale of domestic tragedy is more than just a well-told yarn . . . Played out against the bloody backdrop of political struggles in Congo that continue to this day, it is also particularly timely.

Newsday

A bravura performance . . . A subtle and complex creation, dealing with epic subjects with invention and courage and a great deal of heart.

Washington Post Book World - Jane Smiley

There are few ambitious, successful and beautiful novels. Lucky for us, we have one now, in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible . . . his awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.

The Boston Globe

The book's sheer enjoyability is given depth by Kingsolver's insight and compassion for Congo, including its people, and their language and sayings.

Publishers Weekly

In this risky but resoundingly successful novel, Kingsolver leaves the Southwest, the setting of most of her work (The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams) and follows an evangelical Baptist minister's family to the Congo in the late 1950s, entwining their fate with that of the country during three turbulent decades. Nathan price's determination to convert the natives of the Congo to Christianity is, we gradually discover, both foolhardy and dangerous, unsanctioned by the church administration and doomed from the start by Nathan's self-righteousness.......Kingsolver moves into new moral terrain in this powerful, convincing and emotionally resonant novel.

Reader Reviews

jeannie marie rudkin

A very favorite book, one that I wished to continue long after reading it.
A very realistic family and all they endured when being sent to a land so utterly different than their home town, so many people that become alive to you through the lovely flowing of the authors writing, she takes you along.

Kelli Robinson

Southern Gothic Fiction Set in the Congo
This is exactly what I want from an award-winning novel! I was hooked immediately by the author's authentic southern voice and the way she expertly molded and shaped the four Price girls and their mother. The Poisonwood Bible was my kind of Southern ...   Read More

BHLee

Eyes Wide Open
An excellent study of the power of Faith, blind or otherwise. I'm a Christian but I am not in any way offended by Kingsolver's portrayal of the Prices. In fact, the family's journey in the story made me more reflective and appreciative of the need to...   Read More

Elizabeth

Haunting and a page turner
"Beto nki tutasala? What are we doing?" quote from Page 523......and...I asked myself that question throughout the book as the Price Family continued with their missionary work and all the hardships and heartache the family endured. ...   Read More

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