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The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

Paperback - 566 pages (October 1999)
Harperperennial Library; ISBN: 0060930535

As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortune across a span of more than 30 years.

The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price's wife and daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate--teenage Rachel's tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their "French congregations"; Nathan's refusal to take his family home is a "tapestry of justice"). More problematic is Kingsolver's tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.

Despite these weaknesses, Kingsolver's fully realized, three-dimensional characters make The Poisonwood Bible compelling, especially in the first half, when Nathan Price is still at the center of the action. And in her treatment of Africa and the Africans she is at her best, exhibiting the acute perception, moral engagement, and lyrical prose that have made her previous novels so successful. --Alix Wilber


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.

 

 

articles and reviews
October 18, 1998
Going Native
The family of a Baptist missionary in the Congo of the 1950's learns some hard lessons about life.

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
The phrase ''heart of darkness'' occurs only once, as far as I can tell, in Barbara Kingsolver's haunting new novel, ''The Poisonwood Bible.'' When it does, it falls from the mouth of Orleanna Price, a Baptist missionary's wife who uses it to describe not the Belgian Congo, where she, her husband and their four daughters were posted in 1959, but the state of her marriage in those days and the condition of what she calls ''the country once known as Orleanna Wharton,'' wholly occupied back then by Nathan Price, aforesaid husband and man of God. Joseph Conrad's great novella flickers behind her use of that phrase, and yet it doesn't. Orleanna is not a quoting woman, and for the quoting man in the family, her strident husband, there can be only one source -- the Bible, unambiguous and entire, even in a land that demonstrates daily the suppleness of language. ''Tata Jesus is bangala!'' he shouts during his African sermons. It never occurs to him that in Kikongo, a language in which meaning hangs on intonation, bangala may mean '''precious and dear,'' but it also means the poisonwood tree -- a virulent local plant -- when spoken in the flat accent of an American zealot. [read more]
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