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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
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The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

by Barbara Kingsolver

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
22,982455101 (4.19)975
The drama of a U.S. missionary family in Africa during a war of decolonization. At its center is Nathan Price, a self-righteous Baptist minister who establishes a mission in a village in 1959 Belgian Congo. The resulting clash of cultures is seen through the eyes of his wife and his four daughters.
  1. 223
    The Help by Kathryn Stockett (paulkid)
    paulkid: Race relations on different continents, told from multiple female perspectives.
  2. 172
    The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (derelicious)
  3. 142
    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (Booksloth)
  4. 120
    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (jlelliott)
    jlelliott: Each tells the story of Christian missionaries in Africa, one from the perspective of the missionaries, one from the perspective of the local people targeted for "salvation".
  5. 121
    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (momofthreewi)
    momofthreewi: Both are rich in character development and centered around unique families.
  6. 122
    The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (kraaivrouw)
  7. 90
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (WSB7)
    WSB7: Both about "colonialisms" abuses in the Congo, among other themes.
  8. 80
    Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (allenmichie)
  9. 92
    Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (allenmichie)
  10. 71
    King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (baobab)
  11. 83
    The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (whirled)
  12. 72
    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (GreenVelvet)
  13. 50
    The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (Bcteagirl)
    Bcteagirl: The book has a similar familial tone and is also told from the point of view of young girls growing up in a difficult situation. I had been looking for a book with a similar writing style and was happy to find this one. If you liked The Book of Negroes I recommend The Poisonwood Bible and vice versa.… (more)
  14. 50
    A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (lucyknows)
    lucyknows: You could use the theme of colonialism to pair The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver with Passage to India by E. M. Forster.
  15. 40
    Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres (literarysarah)
  16. 73
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (kiwiflowa)
  17. 30
    Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart by Tim Butcher (CatherineRM)
    CatherineRM: I love both these books and they nicely juxtapose each other with their Congo total immersion albeit one fictional and one factual. Tim Butcher traces the Congo River from its source through the dense equatorial land that the protagonist of the Kingsolver book occupied with his suffering family. Both books made a lasting impression on me and I have great time for Africa as I lived in Tanzania - close to Congo geographically for most of the time - and it has a big place in my heart. Read both books and be enriched!… (more)
  18. 20
    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (sweetbug)
    sweetbug: Similar themes of conflict between two cultures, Westerners living and working in an exotic and dangerous land, and parents / surrogate parents protecting (or not) their children from harm.
  19. 20
    The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (charl08)
  20. 20
    The Civilized World by Susi Wyss (ShortStoryLover)
    ShortStoryLover: Although it's much shorter than Poisonwood, The Civilized World also has multiple points of view from female perspectives and the chapters are almost all set in various parts of present-day Africa.

(see all 31 recommendations)

1990s (2)
1990s (36)
Africa (29)
hopes (27)
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» See also 975 mentions

English (448)  Dutch (3)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (453)
Showing 1-5 of 448 (next | show all)
the most beautiful place in the world
  victor.k.jacobsson | May 23, 2020 |
there are so many layers to peel back in this, so many avenues to explore. she does so much in 550 pages, i'm sure i didn't get it all. it is lush in language and so full of lessons and meaning.

she is brilliant. this might not be her easiest read - when does politics make for a fun or breezy book - but it is so worth it. through the backdrop of colonialism and american intervention in foreign governments (perhaps a favorite recurring theme of hers?) in the congo in 1959-61, she weaves a tale of grief and loss - and how we carry it or lay it down, and how that changes us. a story about what we lose and what we gain, and how they are sometimes correlated. a parable with the lesson of humility and being willing to hear, understand, and learn from other perspectives. that's just on the surface. this book is about so much.

when i first read it i remember being less interested in the political aspects of the story, and focused more on the religious commentary. this time, i think the political statements she's making are the main crux of it, and it's all just supported by the religious aspects of the story. the price family and their casual arrival in the african village they feel they have a right to come to and that they believe should bend and change for them, no matter what the villagers believe or desire, mirrors the political story of how america feels the congolese government should do as they want, regardless of what's best for their own people, or what those people want. america brings democracy! ok, but wait, we don't like the person the congolese people voted for, so we will kill him and replace him with someone who we can influence, to the utter destruction of the congo and her people. no matter, this wasn't about them anyway. how much of nathan price's preaching of jesus and forced baptisms was about gaining true believers versus having a ledger of "souls" to bring back to the mission leaders? it's all farcical. except for the people who the missionaries and the governments are interfering with.

as to religion, i always love stories where the missionary is the one who is the least good example of goodness in the story, and this is no exception. it's not christianity she has a problem with. i think that brother fowles is a great character and shows positivities of religion, and maybe even of missionary work. or at least a way to do it that respects the native population. (but then, that's why he was removed by the mission.) but the idea of coming in to a place that makes no sense to you, and bringing a religion that makes no sense to the people, it's shown to be ludicrous. it's useless - it's like a goat with wheels in a mud storm, as someone in the book might say. but the native religion, that grows from the life and the people in the area, the ideas and songs and rituals that make sense to them, she's not saying that they are all bad. they might need some reworking, and could stand to undergo debate, but they're not necessarily bad. (i'm more of the religion is bad philosophy, but she makes me think here, and i appreciate that.) there's something, too, to how leah used religion as a shield when she was hiding out with the nuns, waiting for anatole to be released from prison.

i love what she does with adah and her disability - with the language and how it really emphasizes nathan's mistakes with language to have her so in tune with words and their sounds and meanings. and then also how she allows adah to grow out of it. i'm not sure what that was about, maybe that too often we let others define us or tell us how we are or should be, so much so that it can feel impossible to be who we really are. that the weight of others expectations can be so great as to keep us from being ourselves or even knowing who we'd be if we could.

there is *so* much here. how each remaining sister moves forward from what happened to them in africa, so differently from each other. how understandable they all are, but how truly awful rachel seems by the end. how leah names a child after nathan in the end, indicating forgiveness and continued love, in spite of it all. (perhaps showing the most christian charity of anyone.) how religion ends up not featuring in their lives, except when it does. how exploitative white people are to the people and the country of the congo.

she has her political point about colonialism and white manifest destiny and racism. her other, personal point (and my main takeaway), is what we set ourselves up to lose when we are unable to let anything go, and how much we ultimately can gain, if only we're willing to not hold on to everything so tightly.

this book is not always fun or easy but it is incredible. she has written an absolute masterpiece.

about halfway through i stopped tagging lines and ideas because there were so many and because so many of them needed context. i feel like if i marked books, that a significant portion of this one would be underlined.

from the author's note at the beginning: "I was the fortunate child of medical and public-health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo. They brought me to a place of wonders, taught me to pay attention, and set me early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right."

"Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don't, but we wear it all the same. There's only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?"

"Yet we sang in church 'Tata Nzolo' ! Which means Father in Heaven or Father of Fish Bait depending on just how you sing it, and that pretty well summed up my quandary. I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life-sentence."

"It struck me what a wide world of difference there was between our sort of games - 'Mother May I?,' 'Hide and Seek' -- and his: 'Find Food,' 'Recognize Poisonwood,' 'Build a House.' And here he was a boy no older than eight or nine. He had a younger sister who carried the family's baby everywhere she went and hacked weeds with her mother in the manioc field. I could see that the whole idea and business of Childhood was nothing guaranteed. It seemed to me, in fact, like something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress. For the first time ever I felt a stirring of anger against my father for making me a white preacher's chid from Georgia. This wasn't my fault. I bit my lip and labored on my own small house under the guava tree, but beside the perfect talents of Pascal, my own hands lumbered like pale flippers on a walrus out of its element. My embarrassment ran scarlet and deep, hidden under my clothes."

"For time and eternity there have been fathers like Nathan who simply can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land."

"Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms."

"I envied them with an intensity near to love, and near to rage."

"But who, if not me, and for how many generations must we be forgiven by our children?"

"Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet."

(4.5 stars - because parts are tough, but i bet next time it'll be 5)

from dec 2008:
i only wish she published more often...a beautiful book. she's brave enough to tackle religion (and their missionaries) and the american gov't's policies around the world (specifically the eisenhower administration's policy in the congo, as far as the story is concerned, but we know what she means.)

a surprisingly good book to read for someone who is struggling with religion.

"I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence."

"...the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson."

"...I've seen how you can't learn anything when you're trying to look like the smartest person in the room." (4 stars) ( )
  overlycriticalelisa | May 12, 2020 |
Read. ( )
  sasameyuki | May 8, 2020 |
Read before 2008. This book was recommended by Jill Biden (6-12). ( )
  Tammyhil | Mar 18, 2020 |
Absolutely brilliant. What a moving and incredibly articulate novel recounting the lives of a deeply disfunctional missionary family and the congolese people around them all set during the turbulent years of the independence of the Republic of Congo and the several nations ejected from that malstrom. The novel recounts the history of the family throughout this period with deep injections of introspection into the nature of man, environment, wealth, poverty, health, politics and culture. Just... wow. ( )
  ErrantRuminant | Mar 13, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 448 (next | show all)
Kingsolver once wrote that ""The point [of portraying other cultures] is not to emulate other lives, or usurp their wardrobes. The point is to find sense.'' Her effort to make sense of the Congo's tragic struggle for independence is fully realized, richly embroidered, triumphant.
added by Shortride | editNewsweek (Nov 9, 1998)
 
A writer who casts a preacher as a fool and a villain had best not be preachy. Kingsolver manages not to be, in part because she is a gifted magician of words--her sleight-of-phrase easily distracting a reader who might be on the point of rebellion. Her novel is both powerful and quite simple. It is also angrier and more direct than her earlier books.
added by Shortride | editTime, John Skow (Nov 9, 1998)
 
The Congo permeates ''The Poisonwood Bible,'' and yet this is a novel that is just as much about America, a portrait, in absentia, of the nation that sent the Prices to save the souls of a people for whom it felt only contempt, people who already, in the words of a more experienced missionary, ''have a world of God's grace in their lives, along with a dose of hardship that can kill a person entirely.''
 
Although ''The Poisonwood Bible'' takes place in the former Belgian Congo and begins in 1959 and ends in the 1990's, Barbara Kingsolver's powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption and the ''dark necessity'' of history.
 

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Kingsolverprimary authorall editionscalculated
Beard, ElliottDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Metz, JulieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meyer, HanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mulder, ArjenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Post, MaaikeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robertson, DeanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spear, GeoffCover photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Frances
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Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
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I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who'd just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite figure the two of them living in the same house.
It is true that I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.
While my husband's intentions crystallized as rock salt, and while I preoccupied myself with private survival, the Congo breathed behind the curtain of forest, preparing to roll over us like a river.
Overpopulation has deforested 3/4 of Africa, yielding drought, famine, and the probable extinction of all animals most beloved by children and zoos.... Africa has a thousand ways of cleaning itself. Driver ants, Ebola virus, AIDS, all these are brooms devised by nature to sweep a small clearing very well.
Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it's only natural that my father thought to bring over seeds in his pockets: Kentucky Wonder beans, crookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. He planned to make a demonstration garden, from which we'd gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond.... Father started clearing a pot of ground out of the jungle's edge near our house, and packing off rows.... He beat down a square of tall grass and wild pink flowers ... Then he bent over and began to rip out long handfuls of grass with quick, energetic jerks as though tearing out the hair of the world.... "Leah," he enquired, "why do you think the Lord gave us seeds to grow, instead of having our dinner just spring up out there on the ground like a bunch of field rocks? Because the Lord helps those that help themselves."
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Synopsis for the Dutch version:
"Eind jaren vijftig trekt Nathan Price met zijn vrouw Orleanna en hun vier dochters naar een dorp in Kongo om de bevolking tot het Christendom te bekeren. De onderneming is van begin af aan gedoemd te mislukken. Het gezin is niet ingesteld op de harde, primitieve levensomstandigheden, en Nathans fanatisme en onbegrip voor zijn omgeving roepen gevaarlijke reacties over hen af. Als de kerk zijn handen van Nathan af trekt en de onrust in Kongo toeneemt, vlucht Orleanna met haar dochters door het oerwoud naar de bewoonde wereld. De gifhouten bijbel is een meeslepende familiegeschiedenis en een ontnuchterend verslag van de gruwelen van religieus fundamentalisme in een uitgebuit land tussen kolonialisme en onafhankelijkheid."

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.
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