The Poisonwood Bible is a family saga which begins in 1959 when Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister, moves from Georgia to the Belgium Congo with his wife and four daughters. His goal, as a missionary, is to bring Christianity to the people living in a tiny village called Kilanga. The novel is narrated alternately by Nathan’s wife Orleanna and her daughters Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May beginning when they arrive in the jungle and continuing through several decades.
This is a novel about a complex region which has struggled with independence, war, starvation, sickness and overzealous interference from other countries. In the midst of this heartbreaking history, the Price family’s struggles are played out in parallel. The family, clearly unprepared for life in the harsh environment of Africa (’We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes…‘) become immersed in a culture rich with spirituality and dependent on community to survive the severe weather conditions and lack of food.
Barbara Kingsolver creates characters whose voices are unique, darkly comic, and compelling. Rachel, a teenager who chooses to save her hand mirror when the village is attacked by a swarm of killer ants, represents the naive and ignorant American attitude toward societies different from our own. Adah, born crippled and mute, sees the world forwards and backwards - a unique vision which allows her to appreciate a new culture. Leah is her father’s little girl - trying desperately to gain his approval…and it is she who changes the most as the novel progresses. Ruth May, the “baby” of the family, is also its ambassador of good will. And finally there is Orleanna, married to a damaged man whose fears and insecurities are turned brutally against his family. It is Orleanna who begins and ends the story.
The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant work of fiction which encompasses several themes. Kingsolver writes beautifully, and her love of language is played out in Rachel’s comic butchering of phrases and words; and Adah’s tendency towards palidromes and reading backwards.
Nommo, I wrote down on the notebook I had opened out for us at our big table. Nomom ommon NoMmo, I wrote, wishing to learn this wordforward and backward. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 210-
That would be Axelroot all over, to turn up with an extra wife or two claiming that’s how they do it here. Maybe he’s been in Africa so long h has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is call Monotony. -as narrated by Rachel in The Poisonwood Bible, page 405-
Thematically, the novel examines the ideas of faith, redemption, and forgiveness. More widely, it explores the history of the Congo with all its beauty and terror, the effects of war, and the terrible impact of government when it collides with individuals. Ultimately the novel reveals our humanity when presented with great challenges as each character takes a different path on their way to resolving their own inner turmoil.
This is a novel which begs to be read, if only for its magnificent scope. In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver demonstrates exactly why she is an author who is lauded and recommended over and over again. It is impossible for me to write a review which will do this book the justice it deserves. I can only say: Read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Passages from The Poisonwood Bible
My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 68-
A war leaves holes in so much more than the dams and roads that can be rebuilt. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 523-
About Who We Are:
The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 496-
So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 474-
To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 200-
I can still recite the litany of efforts it took to push a husband and children alive and fed through each day in the Congo. The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster’s crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes - for there were hookworms lying in wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 90-
As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-
Had I not married a preacher named Nathan Price, my particular children would never have seen the light of this world. I walked through the valley of my fate, is all, and learned to love what I could lose. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-