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The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

by Barbara Kingsolver

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
23,635456106 (4.19)990
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. 130
    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. 142
    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (Booksloth)
  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. 82
    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (GreenVelvet)
  11. 60
    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.
  12. 71
    King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (baobab)
  13. 83
    The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (whirled)
  14. 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)
  15. 83
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (kiwiflowa)
  16. 40
    Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres (literarysarah)
  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 (14)
Africa (29)
hopes (27)

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» See also 990 mentions

English (449)  Dutch (3)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (454)
Showing 1-5 of 449 (next | show all)
Kingsolver's book is story-telling par excellence. I love the shifting perspectives and the language in the book is beautiful. I felt present while reading the book. The tale is devastating and wonderful: much like Africa. Kingsolver did a particularly successful job at exploring the ambiguous nature of evil and righteousness. Also, an interesting theme of womanhood and repression. Africa stands as a great metaphor for this relationship. The chapter on Orleana's funeral preparations for Ruth May will remain forever stamped on my heart. ( )
  mbellucci | Apr 10, 2021 |
This book has gotten a lot of praise — it was featured in Oprah’s Book Club — and there are even study guides devoted to it. It was a big deal when it first came out. Some aspects of the praise were warranted, but more than twenty years later, I don’t think the story has held up well. I can’t see it becoming a classic. It’s just too one-note and mean-spirited.

The Poisonwood Bible is about a fire-and-brimstone minister, Nathan Price, who uproots his family from the American South of 1959 and heads to the Belgian Congo, which is soon to become an independent country. His long-suffering wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters Rachel, Leah and Adah (twins) and Ruth May come with him. The story is about their culture shock as they live in a hut without electricity or running water as their father preaches salvation to the natives, who remain unimpressed. The narration alternates between the first-person voices of the female characters, sometimes jumping ahead to the future after they have left Africa, or to the past when they were younger. Kingsolver has said she intended the book to be a study of a family in crisis, but it comes across more as an exercise in snark.

Right away this very white-bread family is set up so readers can laugh at them in their ignorance. Everything they do, is a failure. Mom has a tear-filled breakdown when the boxed cake mixes she has smuggled in for birthdays get ruined in the Congan humidity; Dad’s garden he plants with American seeds is repeatedly flooded and then fails for lack of appropriate pollination. I enjoyed it up to the middle, then thought, enough. I wanted to see plot progression and feel some emotional weight. Everything felt too anecdotal, like any chapter of it could have appeared in The New Yorker magazine as a short story. It was too overwritten for a novel. The writing was enjoyable, mind you, but got to be too much.

The girls’ narration tired me as well. When the story begins, Rachel, the oldest, is 15 going on 16; the twins are 14, and Ruth May is 5. But they come across as too cerebral, even the youngest. They didn’t seem authentic. I think the author was trying for a William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury approach, crossed with some Holden Caulfield, but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I gave up halfway in. In light of the current times and current issues of 2020, I was just not comfortable with the mocking tone of it. The Congolese are mocked through the eyes of the narrators, and the narrators, with their 1950s religious fundamentalist mindsets, are set up to the mocked by the readers, or by the author. This may be the fault of the time in which it was published, when it was standard to mock the 1950s through the more “enlightened” filter of the 90s (take the successful movie Pleasantville, for example… ) but the author wasn’t adding anything new to the mix, IMO.

I guess I wanted the characters and their problems handled with more respect, if that makes sense. ( )
1 vote Cobalt-Jade | Dec 26, 2020 |
Beautifully written epic. The political history of the Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo is the backdrop to a story about how a family's time there affects them throughout their lives. ( )
  helenar238 | Oct 31, 2020 |
An all-time favorite. I enjoyed rereading this book 20 years after the first time. Kingsolver's characters are fascinating as always, and her prose is unrivaled. ( )
  klnbennett | Oct 7, 2020 |
I thought this was an amazing book. It made me think. It changed my mind. It entertained (I laughed, cried, sputtered in anger, etc.). The many different voices were so well done. Great job! ( )
  lasvegasbookie | Aug 20, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 449 (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.
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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