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The Poisonwood Bible


The Poisonwood Bible Cover


Synopses & Reviews

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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 1998, the Price sisters tell their stories, in alternating narratives that reflect their ages as the years pass and the understandings that they achieve. Those stories--together with Orleanna's retrospective commentaries--reveal the amazing forty-year saga that the Prices and the Congo share. Cultural and spiritual conflicts, confusion and revelation, hunger and pleasure, cruelties and kindness, suffering and love, all combine with the day-to-day life in Africa's villages to enrich this wondrous tale. This is Barbara Kingsolver's most daring, complex, and rewarding novel--a whopping good story told with tender majesty. The wisdom that Rachel, Adah, Leah, Ruth May, and Orleanna wrest from their lives is also ours.

Topics for Discussion:
1. What are the implications of the novel's title phrase, the poisonwood bible, particularly in connection with the main characters' lives and the novel's main themes? How important are thecircumstances in which the phrase comes into being?

2. How does Kingsolver differentiate among the Price sisters, particularly in terms of their voices? What does each sister reveal about herself and the other three, their relationships, their mother and father, and their lives in Africa? What is the effect of our learning about events and people through the sisters' eyes?

3. What is the significance of the Kikongo word nommo and its attendant concepts of being and naming? Are there Christian parallels to the constellation of meanings and beliefs attached to nommo? How do the Price daughters' Christian names and their acquired Kikongo names reflect their personalities and behavior?

4. The sisters refer repeatedly to balance (and, by implication, imbalance). What kinds of balance--including historical, political, and social--emerge as important? Are individual characters associated with specific kinds of balance or imbalance? Do any of the sisters have a final say on the importance of balance?

5. What do we learn about cultural, social, religious, and other differences between Africa and America? To what degree do Orleanna and her daughters come to an understanding of those differences? Do you agree with what you take to be Kingsolver's message concerning such differences?

6. Why do you suppose that Reverend Nathan Price is not given a voice of his own? Do we learn from his wife and daughters enough information to formulate an adequate explanation for his beliefs and behavior? Does such an explanation matter?

7. What differences and similarities are there among Nathan Price's relationship with his family, Tata Ndu's relationship with his people, and the relationship ofthe Belgian and American authorities with the Congo? Are the novel's political details--both imagined and historical--appropriate?

8. How does Kingsolver present the double themes of captivity and freedom and of love and betrayal? What kinds of captivity and freedom does she explore? What kinds of love and betrayal? What are the causes and consequences of each kind of captivity, freedom, love, and betrayal?

9. At Bikoki Station, in 1965, Leah reflects, " I still know what justice is." Does she? What concept of justice does each member of the Price family and other characters (Anatole, for example) hold? Do you have a sense, by the novel's end, that any true justice has occurred?

10. In Book Six, Adah proclaims, " This is the story I believe in . . ." What is that story? Do Rachel and Leah also have stories in which they believe? How would you characterize the philosophies of life at which Adah, Leah, and Rachel arrive? What story do you believe in?

11. At the novel's end, the carved-animal woman in the African market is sure that " There has never been any village on the road past Bulungu, " that " There is no such village" as Kilanga. What do you make of this?


In 1959, Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist, takes his four young daughters, his wife, and his mission to the Belgian Congo — a place, he is sure, where he can save needy souls. But the seeds they plant bloom in tragic ways within this complex culture. Set against one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century — the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium and its devastating consequences — here is New York Times-bestselling author Barbara Kingslover's beautiful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable epic that chronicles the disintegration of family and a nation.

About the Author

Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955. She grew up "in the middle of an alfalfa field," in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. While her family has deep roots in the region, she never imagined staying there herself. "The options were limited--grow up to be a farmer or a farmer's wife."

Kingsolver has always been a storyteller: "I used to beg my mother to let me tell her a bedtime story." As a child, she wrote stories and essays and, beginning at the age of eight, kept a journal religiously. Still, it never occurred to Kingsolver that she could become a professional writer. Growing up in a rural place, where work centered mainly on survival, writing didn't seem to be a practical career choice. Besides, the writers she read, she once explained, "were mostly old, dead men. It was inconceivable that I might grow up to be one of those myself . . . "

Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She also took one creative writing course, and became active in the last anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduating in 1977, Kingsolver lived and worked in widely scattered places. In the early eighties, she pursued graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a Masters of Science degree. She also enrolled in a writing class taught by author Francine Prose, whose work Kingsolver admires.

Kingsolver's fiction is rich with the language and imagery of her native Kentucky. But when she first left home, she says, "I lost my accent . . . [P]eople made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it up slowly and became something else." During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France she supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archaeologist, copy editor, X-ray technician, housecleaner, biological researcher and translator of medical documents. After graduate school, a position as a science writer for the University of Arizona soon led her into feature writing for journals and newspapers. Her numerous articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Smithsonian, and many of them are included in the collection, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing, and in 1995, after the publication of High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, De Pauw University.

Kingsolver credits her careers in scientific writing and journalism with instilling in her a writer's discipline and broadening her "fictional possiblities." Describing herself as a shy person who would generally prefer to stay at home with her computer, she explains that "journalism forces me to meet and talk with people I would never run across otherwise."

From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day, but she was writing fiction by night. Married to a chemist in 1985, she suffered from insomnia after becoming pregnant the following year. Instead of following her doctor's recommendation to scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, Kingsolver sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees, a novel about a young woman who leaves rural Kentucky (accent intact) and finds herself living in urban Tucson.

The Bean Trees, published by HarperCollins in 1988, and reissued in a special ten-year anniversary hardcover edition in 1998, was enthusiastically received by critics. But, perhaps more important to Kingsolver, the novel was read with delight and, even, passion by ordinary readers. "A novel can educate to some extent," she told Publishers Weekly. "But first, a novel has to entertain--that's the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I'll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessiblity. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with--who may not often read anything but the Sears catalogue--to read my books."

For Kingsolver, writing is a form of political activism. When she was in her twenties she discovered Doris Lessing. "I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way. And it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do, if I could ever do that."

The Bean Trees was followed by the collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989), the novels Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993), and the bestselling High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never (1995). Kingsolver has also published a collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America (Seal Press, 1992, 1998), and a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of l983 (ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1989, 1996). The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, earned accolades at home and abroad, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection.

Barbara's Prodigal Summer, released in November of 2000, is a novel set in a rural farming community in southern Appalachia. Small Wonder, April 2002, presents twenty-three wonderfully articulate essays. Here Barbara raises her voice in praise of nature, family, literature, and the joys of everyday life while examining the genesis of war, violence, and poverty in our world.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Prentise, September 22, 2011 (view all comments by Prentise)
Barbara Kingsolver is so brilliant that it is hard to find words to describe her writing. Somehow, she manages to go inside the minds of five women and girls: a mother and her four daughters; she expresses each one so believably and individually, that after several times of reading each one, I could begin to know which one was speaking without looking at the title of the chapter.
Kingsolver's detailed knowledge of the Congo and its people, environment, animals and plants, weather, food and water supply, culture, lifestyle, beliefs, practices, history, and hopes, as well the involvement of the United States in the Congo's problems is eye- and mind-opening.
I feel that it must have taken her ten years of study to know so much and be able to write about it. Her description of the domineeringly insane Christian missionary who is the husband and father to the females is startling clear; I am only disappointed that she never writes from inside the minds of any of the main men in the story, especially the father.
Kingsolver's political, historical, social, religious, environmental, and relationship comments are startlingly brief and to the point -- she can express a whole chapter or book's worth of viewpoints and information in one or two sentences.
Although it is a big book, it is so engrossing and easy to read, with short chapters that just fly along, it is hard to put down. When I finally got to the end, it was with great relief that so many issues were resolved, so many questions answered, so much meaning clarified ... absolutely stunning -- I can hardly wait to read more of Kingsolver.
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lissi, September 1, 2011 (view all comments by lissi)
My first Barbara Kingsolver novel and I'm hooked. Her writing is wonderful. You are there, in Africa with the oppressing heat, the jungle, the beautiful and resourceful Africans and the Price family. I loved how Africa changed each of them; well, most of them, and how little they really had to give Africa.
I read on to "Animal Dreams" which although not as epic a tale, was a beautiful one. Looking forward to reading all that the author has written.
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Dhani Schneider, April 30, 2009 (view all comments by Dhani Schneider)
The Poisonwood Bible, like its religious counterpart, contains a Genesis and an Exodus. The novel teaches lessons, includes serpents and temptations, and involves baptisms. However, the comparisons between the Belgian Congo in the 1960s and the stories of Jesus and his disciples are few and far between. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel casts a white, Southern family of six as her lead players. She takes a Baptist minister, his suffering wife, and their four diverse daughters out of Georgia and plunks them in nearly primitive Kilanga, a Congolese village. The novel appeals most to women, who can relate most closely to the intense familial relationships, especially those between mother and daughter. The book manages to weave rich culture with intriguing stories. The Congo is a world away- so far and unfamiliar, in fact, that the Kikongo word bängala means “most precious” as well as “poisonwood”.
The novel begins in the 1950s and is undated towards the end. Most of the action takes place in the Congo and the surrounding area. The story ties in with the Congo Crisis (1960-1965), in which the Republic of Congo was liberated from Belgium. Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister by the newly free Congolese, but was then assassinated and replaced with the Communist Joseph Mobutu. Though not entirely central to the plot, understanding the revolution and its members is key in analyzing the motives of many of the characters and the changes that occur during the Price’s time in Africa. The author, Barbara Kingsolver, has lived in Africa and writes from her experiences.
Though the culture and history are rich on their own, Kingsolver enhances the story through her deep, captivating characters. The leader of the Prices, Reverend Nathan Price, is the only family member that fails to narrate a chapter. He “believed one thing above all else: that the Lord notices righteousness, and rewards it…he would accept no other possibility” (200). Nathan is described as incredibly stubborn and selfish; his daughter Leah recalls him loading his wife and daughters with dozens of pounds of objects, while he carried “the Word of God- which fortunately weighs nothing at all” (19). The former ruler of the Prices, Nathan eventually loses the respect of his family, and eventually, his family itself.
The carrier of Nathan’s burden was truly his wise, profound wife, Orleanna. Though she narrates only five short chapters of the book, her words set the tone and give explanations and rationale for the actions undertaken by her family. At the end of the novel, she sums up her life by saying that “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 til I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop” (382). While in the Congo, her daughters believe that she is merely indifferent towards them and is just another source of commands and oppression. However, after their African adventure, the girls realize that their mother is the strongest woman among them.
It is this uncommon union between selfishness and selflessness that bring four very different daughters. The oldest, Rachel, is really the most immature. She concerns herself with typical adolescent interests, regardless of the fact that she is oceans away from Georgia. Her passages are filled with humor and lightness, such as her confusion between Amnesty International and “Damnesty” International. Throughout the entire endeavor, Rachel keeps this attitude; her own sister remarks that “if Rachel ever gets back to Bethlehem [Georgia] for a high school reunion she will win the prize for ‘Changed the Least’” (494). Rachel’s indifferent attitude is contrasted in Leah, the most active and outgoing Price sister. Leah embraces the Congo, trying their customs and meeting their people. She is awestruck to find that she can “carry [her] own parcel like any woman here…and keep it there as long as
I had one hand on it!” (390). Leah’s voice is strong and confident, while her less fortunate twin Adah
suffers in silence. Disfigured at birth, Adah’s words are as crooked as her walk; elaborates on her own
name as “only Adah or, to my sisters sometimes, the drear monosyllabic Ade, lemonade, Band-Aid, frayed blockade, switchblade renegade, call a spade a spade” (57). Her passages are incredibly interesting to read because of the hidden palindromes and wordplay. Young Ruth May is still impressionable- her thoughts of the world are fairly simple and carefree. She writes that “sometimes you just want to lay down and look at the whole world sideways” (214). In this way, her words are
seemingly simple but carry a much heavier meaning.
The Price family is supplemented with other characters, mostly villagers, political figures, and a handful of others. Notable among them are Eeben Axelroot, the freewheeling pilot; Anatole, the scarred village schoolteacher; and Tata Ndu, the chief of Kilanga. The sustenance of the novel is basic day to day activities. However, these occurrences are less than ordinary- the family endures a swarm of flesh-eating ants, an ancient-style hunt, and an escape from Africa that pushes them to different directions. However, the real depth of the novel comes from what they learn, whether it be from each other or their very unfamiliar surroundings.
Kingsolver accomplishes this through wild stories with an underlying root. For example, the story about the wave of ants is told with graphic imagery and the shocking recognition of nature’s danger. However, the lesson is learned by Rachel, who remembers that sometimes you just need to “stick out your elbows, and hold yourself up” (517). Though the situation is rare, the lesson is real. This occurs in nearly every chapter, with each sister learning things about herself, the people around her, and the challenges and beauty that life forces upon its participants. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver emphasizes the fact that change brings realization.
Another technique that Kingsolver utilizes is the inclusion of the Kikingo language, which is spoken in the Congo and the surrounding area. In this language, single words have multiple meanings, depending on how they are said, such as bängala meaning “most precious”, “most insufferable”, and “poisonwood.” The language was hard to grasp at first, but easier once related. Leah describes the relationships between words, noting, "we worried over nzolo--it means "dearly beloved"; or a white grub used for fish bait; or little potatoes. Nzole is the double-sized pagne that wraps around two people at once. Finally I see how these things are related. In a marriage ceremony, husband and wife stand tightly bound by their nzole and hold one another to be the most precious: nzolani. As precious as the first potatoes of the season, small and sweet like Georgia peanuts” (505). The inclusion of the language has a dual use: to entrench the culture and to prove that, just like words, actions and results can serve a second purpose.
In the end, the novel achieves its purpose: to tie an entire culture to a fictional story. The Poisonwood Bible shows the development of five women and their own paths to independence, while the Congo reaches its own. Some of their stories are morbidly tragic, others silly and carefree, and yet others intriguing and profound. Kingsolver achieves the goal set by the traditions of Africa: to give every one of her words a deeper meaning.
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Product Details

A Novel
Kingsolver, Barbara
New York
Domestic fiction
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Mass Market PB
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6.82x4.46x1.50 in. .68 lbs.

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"Synopsis" by , In 1959, Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist, takes his four young daughters, his wife, and his mission to the Belgian Congo — a place, he is sure, where he can save needy souls. But the seeds they plant bloom in tragic ways within this complex culture. Set against one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century — the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium and its devastating consequences — here is New York Times-bestselling author Barbara Kingslover's beautiful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable epic that chronicles the disintegration of family and a nation.
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