The Poisonwood Bible
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback) and audio-CD|
|Pages||546 (hardcover), 543 (paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3561.I496 P65 1998|
The Poisonwood Bible (1998), by Barbara Kingsolver, is a bestselling novel about a missionary family, the Prices, who in 1959 move from the U.S. state of Georgia to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, close to the Kwilu River. (The nearest town, an impossibly long journey away, is Bulungu.) The Prices' story is narrated in turns by the five women of the family: Orleanna, the long-suffering wife of Baptist missionary Nathan Price, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. As the Congolese villagers are seen through the eyes of the growing daughters, the view changes. At first, they appear as ridiculous savages. But as the girls mature, the villagers become fully fleshed-out human beings, immersed in a complex and sophisticated culture. Nathan's lack of responsiveness to this culture wears out his family's welcome, but he refuses to leave. Only after a series of misfortunes—culminating in the death of Ruth May—do the women leave Nathan Price to his folly.
Orleanna Price narrates the introductory chapter in five of the novel's seven sections. The narrative then alternates among the four daughters, with a slight preference for the voice of the most outspoken one, Leah. The four girls increasingly mature and develop differently as each adapts to African village life and the political turmoil that overtakes the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.
The Price family packs up their belongings for their flight to the Congo, where they are going to spend a majority of their lives as the family of a missionary. However, shortly before leaving, they are informed that they are limited to 44 pounds of luggage per person. The Southern Baptist Mission League suggests they solve this problem by leaving for the airport wearing many layers of clothing, hiding household items among the layers of clothes to lighten their luggage. This is the first problem of many the Price family will face.
The Price girls and Nathan attend a church service for the first time in Kilanga and they realize how different their culture is from one another: Leah helps her dad plant a "demonstration garden" and it immediately gets discouragements and criticism for Mama Tataba, a local who has become engaged as a live-in helper for the family. Nathan tries to hold an impromptu Easter celebration in hopes of baptizing an abundant amount of Congolese people, but he is not successful in baptizing even one, as the river along the village is infested with crocodiles. Leah and Adah begin to spy on Eeben Axelroot, the pilot who conveyed the family to Kilanga, and Nathan is trying to convince men one by one to conversion, and all the while Ruth May makes friends with the village children. Ruth May finds out about Axelroot's business with the diamonds after breaking her arm. After Mama Tataba's leave, a village child named Nelson is sent to help the Price family, and Nathan and Leah go to Leopoldville (present day Kinshasa) to witness what is going on with the independence in the Congo. Methuselah (a parrot the Prices adopted from the previous missionary) dies and Adah finds his feathers. Ruth May becomes very sick and lies in bed for the majority of the day. Leah and Anatole begin to spend a lot of time together and discuss a lot of things about justice and the Congo. Leah Price wants to participate in the hunt. This upsets the village elders, as it goes against their tribal customs, but she eventually is allowed to participate and even hunts an antelope.
The girls all gather together in the morning to check out the chicken coop. Inside they find footprints and a green mamba snake. A scream and gasp is heard from Ruth May who has been bitten by the snake. The girls watch her turn cold and blue before she passes away. Orleanna becomes filled with guilt over Ruth May's death. The rest of the sisters in the Price family go through many different life changes: Adah dedicates herself to getting an education back home focusing on her disease and sciences; Leah marries Anatole and they start a family together; Rachel still remains very self-centered, goes through a string of marriages, and starts a business; Nathan dies in his unsuccessful mission.
The story ends with a final closing from Ruth May reflecting on her sisters and mother attempting to visit her grave but not being able to find it and a woman telling them a place named Kilanga never existed. She watches her sisters and her mother and has seen how they have matured, and she has matured as well. Through her death, she finally is able to understand the Congolese term of muntu which describes the concept of unity and how all life is connected in some way. She understands that she is muntu and a part of all that is around her. Ruth May only wants her mother to understand the concept and for her to move on. She asks for her mother to forgive herself and not live with the guilt anymore.
- The Prices
- Orleanna Price – Nathan's wife and the mother of their four daughters. Born in Mississippi, she is deferential to her husband but independent-minded
- Nathan Price – Orleanna's husband. An evangelical Baptist minister and a World War II veteran from Georgia, determined to "save Africa for Jesus".
- Rachel Price (15 at start of the novel) – the oldest Price girl; blonde and self-centered, she is obsessed with her looks and American consumer culture.
- Leah Price (14 at start of the novel) – Adah's tomboyish twin; intelligent, self-confident, competitive, tenacious, and compassionate. The most outspoken of the women, Leah is prone to dogmatism and concerned with her own salvation.
- Adah Price (14 at start of the novel) – Leah's twin, hemiplegic from birth. Silent but witty, she is brilliant in math and languages, but is envious of her twin. She is also skeptical, sarcastic, envious, and prone to self-pity.
- Ruth May Price (5 at the start of the novel) – the youngest Price girl; she is playful, independent, adventurous, perceptive, and inquisitive.
- Other characters
- The Underdowns – Belgian mission chiefs who welcome and send supplies to the Prices.
- Eeben Axelroot – a corrupt South African mercenary pilot.
- Anatole Ngemba – the village teacher; an orphan, his fluency in English allows him to be an interpreter for Nathan's sermons.
- Brother Fowles – a New Yorker; the Prices' predecessor on the mission. Married to a local woman.
- Mama Tataba – a village woman, formerly employed by Fowles, who works for the Prices.
- Tata Ndu – the chief of Kilanga.
- Tata Kuvudundu – the spiritual leader of the village.
- Nelson – an orphaned village boy; he is Anatole's student who works for the Prices. He is forced to sleep outside in the chicken coop.
- Methuselah – a parrot left by Brother Fowles; it is excellent at imitating human speech.
Reception and awards
Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called the book "powerful", but said that the social allegories were at times "heavy-handed." The Guardian said the book was "remarkable not just for its story but also for its narrative form."
- Kakatuni, Michiko (16 October 1998). "'The Poisonwood Bible': A Family a Heart of Darkness". New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
- Mullan, John (3 May 2013). "The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
- "Fiction". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 15 September 2014.