The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

Infobox Book
name = The Poisonwood Bible
title_orig =
translator =

author = Barbara Kingsolver
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Domestic fiction
Historical fiction
publisher = HarperFlamingo
release_date = 1998
media_type = Print (Hardcover and Paperback) and audio-CD
pages = 546
isbn = ISBN 0-06-017540-0
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Poisonwood Bible" (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver is a bestselling novel about a missionary family, the Prices, who in 1959 move from Georgia to the fictional village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. The Prices' story, which parallels their host country's tumultuous emergence into the post-colonial era, is narrated by the five women of the family: Orleanna, long-suffering wife of Baptist missionary Nathan Price, and their four daughters – Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. "The Poisonwood Bible" was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999.

Plot introduction

Orleanna Price narrates the introductory chapter in five of the novel's seven sections. The narrative then alternates among the four daughters, with a focus on Leah as she explores the political turmoil that overtook The Congo in the 1950s and 1960s. The increasing maturity of all four girls is apparent as each adapts differently to African village life and to the misogyny of their father, who wears out his family's welcome in Kilanga but refuses to depart. It is only after a series of misfortunes, however – culminating in the death of one of the daughters – that the women finally find the will to leave Nathan to his folly. The four survivors take very different paths into their futures, which are described up to the 1990s. The novel ends at the time of the death of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Major Characters

* Orleanna Price - The mother of the four primary narrators and wife to Nathan Price, Orleanna is haunted by her time in the Congo and how it affected her life. She acts as the narrator who, looking back from the present, introduces each of the main sections of the book. Once a carefree, nature-loving, beautiful girl, Orleanna has been beaten down by her husband's dour and fanatical views. Though she fears for her children's safety, she is kept passive by a combination of fear, loyalty, and the belief that God really is on her husband's side. As the danger to her children becomes more tangible, however, Orleanna slowly begins to regain her ability to act out on her own. Unfortunately, it takes the death of her youngest daughter to finally force her to regain full control of her own and her daughter's fates.

* Rachel - The eldest of the Price daughters, Rachel is the voice of the materialistic teen. She is disgusted by the family's decision to move to Africa. Her appearance is her chief concern, and her own well being the only force that can motivate her. With her good looks, she catches a string of wealthy husbands, one of whom leaves her a luxury hotel deep in the heart of the French Congo.

* Leah - One of the Price twins, Leah at first idolizes her father and is heavily influenced by his religious views. Leah is the main voice of compassion among the Price sisters and later becomes the voice for justice. As she confronts the political and daily realities in the Congo, however, she loses her religious faith, and begins to despise her father. She does not, however, lose her idealism. She ends up spending her life working, with her husband Anatole, to improve the life of the Congolese.

* Adah - The other Price twin, Adah was stricken with hemiplegia at birth, giving her a noticeable limp. Although Adah is vocally silent through most of the book, she is extremely intelligent in her writing. She is well-versed in poetry — especially the poems of Emily Dickinson — and likes creating palindromes. Rather than view herself with pity, Adah places herself in voluntary exile from the world, looking on as a wry and brilliant observer, rather than an active participant. Adah casts a cynical eye on her father's religious practices. She too is changed by the Congo; she is pulled into life and forced to admit that she cares enough to participate. She devotes her life to science, becoming a celebrated epidemiologist.

* Ruth May - The youngest of the Price siblings, Ruth May brings a voice of innocence to the narration in her simple interactions with the children of her community. Without speaking the language she manages to befriend all of the children in the village. After a bad bout with malaria, however, she becomes quiet and spiritless. Obsessively frightened by green mamba snakes, she is ultimately killed by one.

* Nathan Price - The family patriarch; father to the Price girls, husband to Orleanna, and author of the family's ill-fated mission to Africa. Nathan is an overzealous Southern Baptist missionary whose actions — as witnessed by his wife and daughters — are often far from mainstream Christian. Under the guise of righteousness, he is often verbally and physically abusive to his family for their supposed religious and social misdeeds. Nathan is driven by the overwhelming guilt he feels as the only member of his army regimen to escape the Battaan Death March. Certain that God despises him as a coward; he is determined to remain unswerving in the face of all obstacles on his mission to save as many souls as he can. In the process he imperils the souls, as well as the lives, of his wife and four daughters.

* Anatole Ngemba - A local teacher in Kilanga, Anatole acts as Nathan's translator and family friend. Although Anatole and Nathan do not see eye to eye on many things, Anatole respects him and desires his community to be informed of Nathan's Christianity.

Other Characters

Eeben Axelroot - A mercenary pilot and CIA operative who is integral in the United States orchestrated coup which overthrows Patrice Lumumba. Slimy and immoral, he refuses the deliver the Price's weekly mail and provisions without a bribe. In order to avoid marrying Chief Ndu, Rachel is forced to pretend that she is engaged to Axelroot. The fake engagement leads into a several-years-long fake marriage when he saves Rachel from the Congo by flying her to South Africa.

Brother Fowles - The previous American missionary in Kilanga, he was removed from the post due to inappropriate fraternizing with the natives. Indeed, as it turns out when the Prices finally meet him, he married a native woman. Brother Fowles has a deep understanding of and sympathy for the Congolese people and their religion, and provides an attractive contrast to the blind and base Christianity of Reverend Price.

Methuselah - An African Grey parrot, left for the Prices by Brother Fowles. Early on in their stay, Nathan flings Methuselah from his cage, giving him freedom. Methuselah, however, does not know what to do with his independence. He never strays far from the house, and depends on the Price girls for his food. On the day that the Republic of Congo is granted its independence from Belgium, Methuselah is killed by a civet cat.

Nelson - Nelson is an orphan and Anatole's best student. He works for the Prices, helping them to get along in the Congo in exchange for a place to sleep and some eggs to sell in the marketplace, so that he can save up for a wife. Unusually bright, Nelson picks up English quickly and helps the girls learn the native language and customs.

Tata Ndu - Tata Ndu is the village chief. He is wary of Reverend Price and his proselytizing, afraid that a move toward Christianity will effect a moral decline in his village. He does not want the people to neglect their traditional gods. He tries in many subtle and tactful ways to inform the Prices that their presence is not welcome, but Nathan obtusely ignores these signals.

Tata Kuvudundu - The much-revered keeper of the old traditions, the religious leader of the village. Like Chief Ndu he is unhappy about Reverend Price's presence, and concerned that the traditions of the village be upheld. Unlike Chief Ndu, however, he does not take a subtle and diplomatic route to ridding himself of the Prices. Instead, he begins to plant poisonous mamba snakes next to the beds of those connected to the Price family. One of these snakes, intended for Nelson, ends up killing Ruth May.

The Underdowns - Belgian nationals who run the finances for several missionary organizations. They are emblematic of the whites in the Belgian Congo, living in splendor just a few miles from the squalid homes of the natives, and showing only suspicion and contempt for their unfortunate and much-abused African neighbors. The Underdowns evacuate the Congo as soon as independence is granted, and are horrified when the Prices do not do the same.

Mama Tataba - Worked as the live-in helper for Brother Fowles, and was supposed to perform the same role in the Price household. She is so outraged by Nathan's obtuse insistence on baptism, as well as by the contemptuous manner in which he treats her helpful suggestions, that she abandons the Prices, forcing them to fend for themselves.

Pascal - A nine-year-old Congolese boy who befriends Leah. Later in life, Leah hears that he was killed by Mobutu's soldiers while walking on the road. Leah names her firstborn son after him.

Elisabet Ngemba - Anatole's aunt. She moves in with Leah and Anatole and becomes Leah's only female companion.

Pascal Ngemba - Leah and Anatole's firstborn son, named after Leah's childhood friend.

Patrice Ngemba - Leah and Anatole's secondborn son, named after Patrice Lumumba.

Martin-Lothaire Ngemba - Leah and Anatole's third son.

Nataniel Ngemba - Leah and Anatole's youngest son, named after Leah's now-dead father.

Sister Thérèse - Leah's friend in the French mission.

Patrice Lumumba - The charismatic first elected president of the Republic of Congo, who preached a gospel of peace and prosperity. He was beaten to death during a military coup orchestrated by the Belgian government.

Joseph Mobutu - The greedy and immoral puppet of the Western powers, put into the dictatorship after Lumumba was assassinated. For thirty years he kept his nation in abject poverty, while he himself lived like a king.

Agostino Neto - A Congolese doctor-poet, who became the first president of the independent nation of Angola. Anatole was engaged in a vigorous correspondence with him, and was asked to serve in his government.

Major Themes

Kingsolver focuses her novel on her view that most of the tragic violence and hunger experienced in The Congo can be traced to foreign influences. Kingsolver expands the novel into more than a historical critique of the colonialization of Africa by creating parallels between the political unrest in The Congo and the situation of the Price family girls as they are abused by Nathan, who vehemently believes himself an instrument of the Christian God. He symbolizes both the European exploitation of Africa and, by extension, the self-righteous dominion of the strong over anyone or anything too weak to prevent it. "The Poisonwood Bible" offers Kingsolver's perspectives on the imbalance of power, resources, and justice that exists in the Congo and elsewhere. On another level, the book may be read as a stab against patriarchy which may take forms in religious or racial bigotry. The tragic consequences of living with a diehard messianic but close-minded character of the missionary husband/father, Nathan Price, are highlighted in Kingsolver's work.

ee also

* Democratic Republic of the Congo
* Congo River
* Congo Crisis
* Patrice Lumumba

External links

* [ "The Poisonwood Bible"] at the author's official site
* [ Oprah's Book Club page on the novel]

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