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The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

by Barbara Kingsolver

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
24,426468109 (4.19)1018
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. 234
    The Help by Kathryn Stockett (paulkid)
    paulkid: Race relations on different continents, told from multiple female perspectives.
  2. 183
    The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (derelicious)
  3. 140
    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".
  4. 152
    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (Booksloth)
  5. 131
    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (momofthreewi)
    momofthreewi: Both are rich in character development and centered around unique families.
  6. 132
    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. 90
    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.
  9. 90
    Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (allenmichie)
  10. 102
    Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (allenmichie)
  11. 103
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (kiwiflowa)
  12. 92
    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (GreenVelvet)
  13. 103
    The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (whirled)
  14. 71
    King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (baobab)
  15. 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)
  16. 40
    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)
  17. 40
    Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres (literarysarah)
  18. 30
    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 (32)
Africa (7)
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English (459)  Dutch (3)  Catalan (2)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (466)
Showing 1-5 of 459 (next | show all)
Kingsolver at her best! A devastating but beautifully written look at the effects of the religious and racist arrogance of an American Baptist preacher and his family in post colonial Africa. Achingly hard to read yet compelling, I was tossed from side to side as both cultures are impacted, destroyed and ultimately reborn. A masterpiece! ( )
  Windyone1 | May 10, 2022 |
Very good read and quite interesting. ( )
  KyleneJones | Apr 25, 2022 |
Resonates ( )
  iamkbee | Apr 7, 2022 |
This book will break your heart three times before breakfast. It will eat you on the inside. Excellent voices for each of the narrators.
  et.carole | Jan 21, 2022 |
I hardly know where to begin with this review, because The Poisonwood Bible is a book that’s so full of depth and complexity that I feel anything I write about it will be paltry in comparison. In it, Barbara Kingsolver explores the intricate themes of politics, European colonialism in Africa, religion, and culture, deftly drawing parallels between these themes and the lives of the Price family who go to the Congo in 1959 as missionaries. There’s also a running theme that juxtaposes captivity and freedom, and how sometimes, the captivity is of our own making. The author herself calls this book an allegory, “in which the small incidents of characters’ lives shed light on larger events in our world.” There is so much metaphor to be found in this book, I’m sure I missed a lot of it. I read this book for my church book club and there were several things that came up during our discussion that I hadn’t even thought about while reading it. The Poisonwood Bible was a very meaty book that readers can really sink their teeth into, but at the same time, it’s infinitely readable and extremely engaging, feeling like you’ve just sat down to tea with these women as they tell you their stories.

The Price family, dad, Nathan, mom, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, all go to the Congo in 1959, because Nathan wants to save Congolese souls for Christ. The majority of the book is told by the four daughters in their alternating first-person POVs as events are occurring, but at the beginning of the first five sections of the book, Orleanna gets her say in what we assume to be the present-day, as an old woman looking back on the past. The first two-thirds or so of the book covers the seventeen months the Prices spent in the Congo as missionaries, while approximately the last third jumps ahead through their lives by a year, two years, or maybe even more, showing what happens to them over the next three decades. During that time, we see how their time in Africa changed them all in unexpected ways but how this foreign land also got into their blood, tying them down. And of course, all the while that the Price family are working through their difficulties in the little village of Kilanga where they’ve gone to minister, the entire Congo is in political upheaval around them and on the brink of civil war. However, despite being in the thick of it all, there are many things they don’t know about what’s going on until much later.

Nathan Price never gets his own POV, and IMHO he didn’t need one. As Ms. Kingsolver says on her website, this isn’t Nathan’s story. However, his decisions and actions have far-reaching consequences. In any case, she painted a vivid picture of this man through the eyes of his wife and daughters, and despite being a minister, he was not a good man. He may have been a decent man during his early years, but he returned from WWII forever changed. An overblown sense of survivor’s guilt that he couldn’t put to rest drives him to go save as many souls as he can, because he wasn’t able to save the other men in his unit from a hideous death. His religious zealotry grows into an obsession that gradually distances him from his own family until they can’t stand to be around him. In trying to save other souls, he also drives them away from the God and the faith he professes. He’s also an abusive and unforgiving man. It would be easy to hate Nathan, but in the author’s talented hands, I may not have exactly felt sympathy for him, but I did understand on some level what makes him tick. He’s a man who can’t forgive himself and in his warped mind believes that God won’t forgive him either, so he sets out looking for an absolution that I’m not sure he ever found, without ever realizing or perhaps not caring that he’s losing everything he should have held dear in the process. I think he also may have been suffering from some kind of untreated mental illness that only makes his actions seem more desperate and bizarre over time.

I got the sense that Orleanna was a vibrant woman in her youth, and that she was happy in her marriage to Nathan at first. But when he returns from the war, he’s a completely different man and no longer the one she married. Soon, though, she was saddled with three children in diapers, so her life was consumed with caring for them and little else. I think she was always a woman with her own thoughts and opinions, but she was rarely ever allowed to voice them. Nathan beat her into submission both literally and metaphorically, while she was also a product of the era in which she lived, where women were expected to be more compliant with their husband's wishes. It takes a long time and much hardship, but eventually Orleanna finds her inner strength again and draws on that to make a stand.

The most memorable voices, though, belong to Nathan and Orleanna’s daughters. I’ll begin with the oldest, Rachel. When they leave for the Congo, she’s a teenager who’s obsessed with the types of things that most girls her age are: friends, fashions, hairstyles, entertainers (though she must sneak around to go to the movies), and boys (though she’s never really dated). She’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I think, on some level, she knows it and doesn’t care. She does sometimes complain about her younger sisters being smarter, but she doesn’t really show much interest in improving herself either. I actually enjoyed how the author deliberately uses incorrect words in her dialogue and thought processes. Rachel is very self-absorbed, rarely stepping outside her own little bubble to care about what’s going on in the world around her. Even as the reality of their situation in Africa settles in, she still seems to think the world does and should revolve around her. Rachel has her prejudices and a great deal of shortcoming that could make her easy to dislike, but much like with her father, I understood how her upbringing and her personality plays into where her life takes her. She uses her strong personality to forge a not wholly unexpected path for herself in a man’s world even though she has to do some manipulative things to get there.

Next oldest are identical twins Leah and Adah, who are also teenagers but with much more depth than their older sister. They may look alike, but they couldn’t be more different if they tried. Leah is a tomboy who craves adventure and anything to do with the great outdoors. She desperately wants her father’s approval and in some ways, I think she tries to be the son he never had. As such, she’s the closest to him, but as she soon learns that bond is pretty much one-sided. She’s also extremely smart, having been in gifted classes in school before going to Africa. I think Leah is the daughter to whom I related the most, and in some ways, she seemed the most normal. While I don’t have it in me to do many of the things Leah does, I admired her greatly for her strength and fortitude in the face of so much adversity. She, out of all the sisters, is the one who is able to form a loving, healthy, and lasting relationship, which kind of satisfied the romance reader in me. Leah may have struggled throughout the rest of her life with some of the things that happened to her family, but I think she was able to process it all a little better than the others.

Adah was born with brain damage and as such, one whole side of her body is weak and difficult for her to use. Also because of the way her brain formed, she has a very unique way of thinking in palindromes and reading backwards. She’s equally as smart as Leah, but she refuses to talk, which I think made many view her as mentally slow. Because of her disability, Adah views the world from a very unusual perspective. She’s always the physically slow one, so she tends to see things others miss. She also has a scientific mind that views things in a logical way. Out of all the girls, she’s initially the only one who doesn’t really subscribe to her parents’ Christian beliefs. I think she struggles sometimes with feelings of inadequacy, because she thinks her family and those around her see her as less than, although she oddly feels rather welcome around the people of Kilanga, because there are many in the village who bear their own disabilities in a matter of fact way. I think what she struggled with the most, though, is feeling like her mother didn’t love her as much as her “perfect” little sister.

Last but not least is little Ruth May, who’s the youngest and only five when they go to Africa. For her this is something of an adventure. She loves Jesus with the abandon that only a little child can, and sees the things around her through eyes of wonder. She easily makes friends with the other little kids in the village, teaching them how to play “Mother, May I?” and other games. She’s imaginative and full of life, a sweet little girl, who hasn’t quite become jaded yet by her father’s abuse and religious zealotry, because she sees things in shades of simplicity. She likes everyone and everyone seems to like her. It’s just that easy for her.

There are numerous secondary characters, but a few stood out to me a little more than others. Anatole is the village school teacher, who also acts as a translator to the Prices who don’t know the language. He translates Nathan’s sermons to the people who come to church each week, and eventually tries to translate the Congolese culture to Nathan who isn’t particularly receptive. He does, however, make an impression on Leah, and I like how he treated her as his intellectual equal. Anatole is a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent man, an idealist who was easy for me to love. Nelson, an orphaned student of Anatole’s who he sets up as the Price’s houseboy, can at times be good for a few laughs and others can be quite serious for such a young lad. He becomes friends with the girls and teaches them a lot about the Congo. Mama Mwanza was the villager who stood out to me the most, because she lost both her legs and walks on her hands, has so little when it comes to material wealth, lost a couple of her children, and yet, she shows great compassion and seems to be happier than the Prices are. Eeben Axleroot is a mysterious man who flies his own airplane, which is pretty much the only way in and out of Kilanga. He’s very mercenary, though, and has his hands in a lot of different pots, seeming to work for whoever can pay him the best. He cleans up his act just a little when Rachel finds herself in need of a savior, but not enough to truly be likable. Then there’s Brother Fowles and his family. He preceded the Prices as missionary to Kilanga, but many thought he got too involved with the natives and became too much like them. I, on the other hand, felt like he was a more loving and Christlike figure than any other character in the book.

Overall, The Poisonwood Bible was an incredible read filled with haunting beauty that has left an indelible impression on me. Each of the girl’s voices are so distinct, I would have known who was speaking even without their names as headers to each chapter. The Congo became a character unto itself, making me feel like I’d been transported to another time and place. I’ve only read a handful of stories that take place in Africa and all were in the northern area of the continent. This is the first story I’ve read that takes place in the African interior, and I feel like I learned a great deal about the land, the people, and the culture there. Being more of a genre fiction reader, I can’t say I’ve ever really explored literary fiction much. While I don’t disdain it, I have perhaps avoided it, because I felt like it might be too heavy or difficult to understand. The Poisonwood Bible is definitely making me rethink that. It’s a work of pure genius incorporating political, social, and religious themes as well as a deep exploration of the human condition, while also being very accessible. I love books that make me think and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. It was an elegant, lyrical, intricately layered story with some of the most complex characterizations I’ve ever read. It might have been my first read by Barbara Kingsolver, but it most certainly won’t be my last. I very much look forward to seeing what else she has to offer and hope that I get as much of a feast for the senses and intellect as I did with this book. ( )
  mom2lnb | Jan 10, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 459 (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 (16 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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Dedication
For Frances
First words
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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Wikipedia in English (2)

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.

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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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