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The Poisonwood Bible

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The Poisonwood Bible
AuthorBarbara Kingsolver
GenreLiterary fiction
Historical fiction
Publication date
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback) and audio-CD
Pages546 (hardcover), 543 (paperback)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3561.I496 P65 1998

The Poisonwood Bible (1998), by Barbara Kingsolver, is a best-selling 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 novel's title refers to Bible errata. The father of the family creates his own "misprint" of the Bible. He concludes his sermons with the Kikongo expression "Tata Jesus is bängala" with the intent of saying "Jesus is most precious". In his hurried mispronunciation, he actually says "Jesus is poisonwood".



Orleanna Price, the mother of the family, 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 conflicted 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 year 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.

The Price daughters – Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May – and their mother, Orleanna, and father, Nathan, attend their first church service in the village of Kilanga, and they realize how different their culture is from that of the Congo. For example, 14-year-old Leah helps her father plant a "demonstration garden"; it immediately receives criticism from Mama Tataba, whom the family has engaged as a live-in maid, and the garden does poorly due to the inappropriate climate. Nathan tries to hold an impromptu Easter celebration in hopes of baptizing numerous people, but he is unable to carry this out, as the river along the village, where he plans to hold the baptism, is infested with crocodiles.

Leah and her twin Adah begin to spy on Eeben Axelroot, the pilot who conveyed the family to Kilanga, and Nathan tries to convince Congolese men, one by one, to convert to Christianity. Meanwhile, five-year-old Ruth May befriends the village children. She finds out about Axelroot's business with the diamonds after breaking her arm.

After Mama Tataba departs, an orphan boy named Nelson becomes the family servant. 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 begins to spend a lot of time with Anatole, Kilanga's teacher, discussing topics such as justice and the Congo. Leah wants to participate in the hunt, which upsets the village elders, as it would go against their custom, 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, and takes the other children away, leaving her arrogant husband to fend for himself. With Anatole's help, they eventually reach safety.[1]

The remaining Price sisters go through many different life changes: Adah dedicates herself to getting a scientific education back home (she is hemiplegic and wants to learn more about the condition); Leah marries Anatole and they start a family together; Rachel remains perceptive but vain and distrustful of men, goes through a string of marriages, and starts a business; and Nathan dies in his unsuccessful mission: killed by a mob of Kilanga's villagers when they blame him for a crocodile attack on a boat of children.

The story ends with a final chapter 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; she has matured as well. Through her death, she finally is able to understand the Congolese term 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.

Major characters

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 (Southern Baptist) minister and a World War II veteran from Georgia, determined to "save Africa for Jesus". He feels guilt for having survived the war while his comrades died.
  • 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, and tenacious. 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. She likes to think about things backwards as well as forwards, and is fond of palindromes.
  • 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 Afrikaner 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 Céline, a local woman.
  • Mama Tataba – a village woman, formerly employed by Fowles, who works for the Prices. Best known and celebrated for her prestigious quote, 'You got to be make hills'.
  • 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 the social allegories were at times "heavy-handed".[2]

John Mullan, reviewing the book in British newspaper The Guardian, said the book was "remarkable not just for its story, but also for its narrative form".[3]

The Poisonwood Bible was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999. Additionally that year, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.[4] It won the 2000 Boeke Prize.

In March 2016, the book was discussed on BBC Radio 4's A Good Read.[5]



In March 2019, Bond Group Entertainment – a production company launched by actress Amy Adams and her manager Stacy O'Neil – secured a first-look deal with HBO to develop a TV adaptation of Kingsolver's novel. Adams and O’Neil will executive produce the limited series, while Anya Epstein and Kingsolver are writing the screenplay.[6]


  1. ^ Kris Fulkerson (4 February 2010). CliffsNotes on Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 34–. ISBN 978-0-544-18333-9.
  2. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (1998-10-16). "'The Poisonwood Bible': A Family a Heart of Darkness". New York Times. Retrieved 2017-08-30.
  3. ^ Mullan, John (2013-05-03). "The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-08-30.
  4. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes: Fiction". Pulitzer Prize. Retrieved 2017-08-30.
  5. ^ Presenter: Harriett Gilbert; Interviewed guests: Marian Keyes, Nikki Bedi; Producer: Sally Heaven (2016-03-22). "A Good Read: Marian Keyes and Nikki Bedi". A Good Read. 00:40 minutes in. BBC. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 2017-08-30.
  6. ^ "Amy Adams Sets First-Look Deal at HBO, to Develop 'Poisonwood Bible' Limited Series". 12 March 2019.

See also