The Poisonwood Bible
In her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver extends her formidable literary talents with a large-scale fictional narrative set amidst the political turmoil of post-Colonial Africa. Yet, while working on a larger canvas than in past books, Kingsolver nonetheless draws on her finely honed talents for characterization and observation, to create an intimate portrait of one family's tragic confrontation with the unstoppable forces of nature, history, and hubris.
The Price family of Bethlehem, Georgia, arrives in Kilanga, Congo in 1959 as Baptist missionaries. The patriarch, Nathan, is a silver-tongued tent revival preacher who has dragged his wife and four daughters to this squalid African outpost for the exalted purpose of bringing salvation to the natives. Unyielding in his faith, and blind to the surrounding realities of the Congolese culture, Reverend Price refuses to acknowledge the complete and utter failure of this enterprise.
The women of the family, however, have their own individual perspectives, which they lend as the five narrators of the novel. Orleanna, as wife and mother, quickly realizes that her husband's nearly insane zeal will not protect her daughters from the endemic problems of sickness and hunger. The eldest daughter, Rachel, resents being rent from her carefree American teenage life, and maintains a superior detachment from the black-skinned human beings that inhabit her new world. Conversely, the youngest, Ruth May, at only five, has not yet been imbued with narrow prejudices, and she connects with the village children in ways impossible for the adults.
The middle daughters are twins, Leah and Adah. At the start, Leah adores her father, and strives to aid him in his crucial, onerous work among the villagers. Adah, however, despises all that her father represents. Born with damage to one hemisphere of her brain, she is a strangely intelligent child, though physically handicapped and mute by choice. Her unusual ability to read and think backwards, and her propensity for spying, allow her to share an unusual interpretation of events.
Minor inconveniences mount in to life-threatening situations for this pristine American family unaccustomed to the hardship that surrounds them. Then, as the tension and bloodshed of the struggle for national independence spill over from the cities into the countryside, it becomes patently clear the Prices are no longer welcome or safe in Kilanga. But Nathan, refusing to heed the warnings of his superiors, decides his family must stay. It is a decision that will have unspeakably tragic consequences that will irrevocably change each of their lives.
In some ways, The Poisonwood Bible is a departure for its best-selling author, whose earlier novels have embraced more intimate stories set within the regional confines of the United States. Yet familiar Kingslover themes - the clash of cultures, the attainment of self awareness, the struggle to overcome stifling conventions, the preservation of heritage - still resound in this ambitious and towering indictment of imperialism and unchecked cultural arrogance.
Synthesizing her widespread knowledge of history, science and anthropology, and tempering it with characteristic insight and wit, Barbara Kingsolver has written her most accomplished novel to date.
Read our Barbara Kingsolver Cram Guide for a crash-course in her best fiction!
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955 and grew up in rural Kentucky. She left to attend DePauw University in Indiana in 1973, where she majored in biology. 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.
During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France, Kingsolver supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archeologist, 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 many articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Smithsonian. In 1986, she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing.
From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day but was writing fiction by night. Her first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988. It was followed by a collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories, and one year later by Animal Dreams. She has also written a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (Cornell University Press) and a collection of poetry, Another America (Seal Press). Kingsolver's third novel, Pigs in heaven, was published in 1993, and her collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, in 1995.
Kingsolver's works have garnered numerous awards including the Edward Abbey Award for Ecofiction, the PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Fiction, the American Library Association Best Books of the Year Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction. She is the only author whose work has been nominated three times for the ABBY Award (the book booksellers most enjoy handling.)
Barbara Kingsolver lives with her husband and daughters in southern Arizona and in the mountains of southern Appalachia.
We came from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. "And heaven knows," our mother predicted, "they won't have Betty Crocker in the Congo."
"Where we are headed, there will be no buyers and sellers at all," my father corrected. His tone implied that Mother failed to grasp our mission, and that her concern with Betty Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church. "Where we are headed," he said, to make things perfectly clear, "not so much as a Piggly Wiggly." Evidently Father saw this as a point in the Congo's favor. I got the most spectacular chills, just from trying to imagine.
She wouldn't go against him, of course. But once she understood there was no turning back, our mother went to laying out in the spare bedroom all the worldly things she thought we'd need in the Congo just to scrape by. "The bare minimum, for my children," she'd declare under her breath, all the live-long day. In addition to the cake mixes she piled up a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel's ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen Number 2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin, Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer.
And now we are here, with all these colorful treasures safely transported and stowed against necessity. Our stores are still intact, save for the Anacin tablets taken by our mother and the thimble lost down the latrine hole by Ruth May. But already our supplies from home seem to represent a bygone world: they stand out like bright party favors here in our Congolese house, set against a backdrop of mostly all mud-colored things. When I stare at them with the rainy season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth, I can hardly recollect the place where such items were commonplace, merely a yellow pencil, merely a green bottle of aspirin among so many other green bottles upon a high shelf.
Mother tried to think of every contingency, including hunger and illness. (And Father does, in general, approve of contingencies. For it was God who gave man alone the capacity of foresight.) She procured a good supply of antibiotic drugs from our Grand-Dad Dr. Bud Wharton, who has senile dementia and loves to walk outdoors naked but still can do two things perfectly: win at checkers and write out prescriptions. We also brought over a cast-iron frying pan, five packets of baker's yeast, pinking shears, the head of a hatchet, a fold-up Army latrine spade, and all told a good deal more. This was the full measure of civilization's evils we felt obliged to carry with us.
Getting here with even the bare minimum was a trial. Just when we consideredourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage, per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who'd have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together including Ruth May's--luckily she counted as a whole person even though she's small--we were sixty-one pounds over. Father surveyed our despair as if he'd expected it all along, and left it up to wife and daughters to sort out, suggesting only that we consider the lilies of the field which have no need of a hand mirror nor aspirin tablets.
"I reckon the lilies need Bibles, though, and his darn old latrine spade," Rachel muttered, as her beloved toiletry items got pitched out of the suitcase one by one. Rachel never does grasp scripture all that well.
But considering the lilies as we might, our trimming back got us nowhere close to the sixty-one pounds, even with Rachel's beauty aids. We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don't weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the Forty-four Pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.
We wore our best dresses on the outside to make a good impression. Rachel wore her green linen Easter suit she was so vain of, and her long whitish hair pulled off her forehead with a wide pink elastic hairband. Rachel is fifteen--or as she would put it, going on sixteen--and cares for naught but appearances. Her full Christian name is Rachel Rebeccah, so she feels free to take after Rebekah the virgin at the well, who is said in Genesis to be "a damsel most fair" and was offered marriage presents of golden earbobs right off the bat, when Abraham's servant spied her fetching up the water. (Since she's my elder by one year, she claims no relation to the Bible's poor Rachel, Leah's younger sister, who had to wait all those years to get married.) Sitting next to me on the plane, she kept batting her white rabbit eyelashes and adjusting her bright pink hairband, trying to get me to notice she had secretly painted her fingernails bubble-gum pink to match. I glanced over at Father, who had the other window seat at the opposite end of our entire row of Prices. The sun was a blood-red ball hovering outside his window, inflaming his eyes as he kept up a lookout for Africa on the horizon. It was just lucky for Rachel he had so much else weighing on his mind. She'd been thrashed with the strap for nail polish, even at her age. But that is Rachel to a T, trying to work in just one last sin before leaving civilization. Rachel is worldly and tiresome in my opinion, so I stared out the window where the view was better. Father feels makeup and nail polish are warning signals of prostitution, the same as pierced ears.
He was right about the lilies of the field, too. Somewhere along about the Atlantic Ocean, the six pairs of underwear and cake mixes all commenced to be a considerable cross to bear. Every time Rachel leaned over to dig in her purse she kept one hand on the chest of her linen jacket and it still made a small clinking noise. I forget now what kind of concealed household weapon she had in there. I was ignoring her, so she chattered mostly to Adah--who was ignoring her too, but since Adah never talks to anyone, it was less noticeable.
Rachel adores to poke fun at everything in Creation, but chiefly our family. "Hey, Ade!" she whispered at Adah. "What if we went on Art Linkletter's House Party now?"
In spite of myself, I laughed. Mr. Linkletter likes to surprise ladies by taking their purses and pulling out what all's inside for the television audience. They think it's very comical if he digs out a can opener or a picture of Herbert Hoover. Imagine if he shook us, and out fell pinking shears and a hatchet. The thought of it gave me nerves. Also, I felt claustrophobic and hot.
Finally, finally we lumbered like cattle off the plane and stepped down the stair-ramp into the swelter of Leopoldville, and that is where our baby sister Ruth May pitched her blond curls forward and fainted on Mother.
She revived very promptly in the airport, which smelled of urine. I was excited and had to go to the bathroom but couldn't surmise where a girl would even begin to look, in a place like this. Big palm tree leaves waved in the bright light outside. Crowds of people rushed past one way and then the other. The airport police wore khaki shirts with extra metal buttons, and believe you me, guns. Everywhere you looked, there were very tiny old dark ladies lugging entire baskets of things along the order of wilting greens. Chickens, also. Little regiments of children lurked by the doorways, apparently for the express purpose of accosting foreign missionaries. The minute they saw our white skin they'd rush at us begging in French: cadeau, cadeau? I held up my two hands to illustrate the total and complete lack of gifts I had brought for the African children. Maybe people just hid behind a tree somewhere and squatted down, I was starting to think; maybe that's why the smell.
Just then a married couple of Baptists in tortoise-shell sunglasses came out of the crowd and shook our hands. They had the peculiar name of Underdown—Reverend and Mrs. Underdown. They'd come down to shepherd us through customs and speak French to the men in uniforms. Father made it clear we were completely self-reliant, but appreciated their kindness all the same. He was so polite about it that the Underdowns didn't realize he was peeved. They carried on making a fuss as if we were all old friends, and presented us with a gift of mosquito netting, just armloads of it, trailing on and on like an embarrassing bouquet from some junior-high boyfriend who liked you overly much. As we stood there holding our netting and sweating through our complete wardrobes, they regaled us with information about our soon-to-be-home, Kilanga. Oh, they had plenty to tell, since they and their boys had once lived there and started up the whole of it, school, church and all. At one point in time Kilanga was a regular mission with four American families and a medical doctor who visited once a week. Now it had gone into a slump, they said. No more doctor, and the Underdowns themselves had had to move to Leopoldville to give their boys a shot at proper schooling-if, said Mrs. Underdown, you could even call it that. The other missionaries to Kilanga had long since expired their terms. So it was to be just the Price family and whatever help we could muster up. They warned us not to expect much. My heart pounded, for I expected everything. Jungle flowers, wild roaring beasts. God's Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory.
Then, while Father was smack in the middle of explaining something to the Underdowns, they suddenly hustled us onto a tiny airplane and abandoned us. It was only our family and the pilot, who was busy adjusting his earphones under his hat. He ignored us entirely, as if we were no more than ordinary cargo. There we sat, draped like tired bridesmaids with our yards of white veil, numbed by the airplane's horrible noise, skimming above the treetops. We were tuckered out, as my mother would say. Plumb tuckered out, she would say. Sugar, now don't you trip over that, you're tuckered out it's plain to see. Mrs. Underdown had fussed and laughed over what she called our charming southern accent. She even tried to imitate the way we said "Right now" and "bye-bye." ("Rot nail," she said. "Whah yay-es, the ayer-plane is leavin rot nail!" and "Bah-bah"—like a sheep!) She caused me to feel embarrassed over our simple expressions and drawn-out vowels, when I've never before considered myself to have any accent, though naturally I'm aware we do sound worlds different from the Yanks on the radio and TV. I had quite a lot to ponder as I sat on that airplane, and incidentally I still had to pee. But we were all dizzy and silent by that time, having grown accustomed to taking up no more space in a seat than was our honest due.
At long last we bumped to a landing in a field of tall yellow grass. We all jumped out of our seats, but Father, because of his imposing stature, had to kind of crouch over inside the plane instead of standing up straight. He pronounced a hasty benediction: "Heavenly Father please make me a powerful instrument of Thy perfect will here in the Belgian Congo, Amen."
"Amen!" we answered, and then he led us out through the oval doorway into the light.
We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees. We'd left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on. In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.
But that was our burden, because there was so much we needed to bring here. Each one of us arrived with some extra responsibility biting into us under our garments: a claw hammer, a Baptist hymnal, each object of value replacing the weight freed up by some frivolous thing we'd found the strength to leave behind. Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God—which fortunately weighs nothing at all.
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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 the circumstances in which the phrase comes into being?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
What differences and similarities are there among Nathan Price's relationship with his family, Tata Ndu's relationship with his people, and the relationship of the Belgian and American authorities with the Congo? Are the novel's political details--both imagined and historical--appropriate?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Posted by mertyworld: A Great Summer Book!
The Poisonwood Bible will take you to a place you've never been before with four young girls and their mother. You will get to experience life without all the things we take for granted everyday. This book will take you on a wild ride and you'll be constantly telling the mother to get those girls out of danger! The book takes you on a journey thru their lives as they grow older. Read this book this summer, I think I'll read it again, too! You won't regret it!
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