The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

535145-LFiction — print. Perennial, 1999. Originally published 1998. 543 pgs. Purchased.

I knew only a handful of things about Kingsolver’s novel before picking it up: (a) the book was chosen as a part of Oprah’s Book Club, (b) it takes place in Africa, (c) it is the book people associate with Kingsolver best, and (d) it has sat on my bookshelf since at least January 2008. Oh, and based on the severely dogeared corner, not a single member of my family bothered to move past page 30 to finish it.

“Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom.” (pg. 201)

The Price children – Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and young Ruth May – are relocated from Georgia along with their mother to a tiny village in the Belgian Congo in 1959 by their father. He’s convinced that God has instructed him, a Southern Baptist preacher, to convert the heathen Congolese people to the ways of Jesus. Five of the seven sections reference to a particular chapter in the Bible – Genesis, Revelation(s), Judges, Exodus, Song(s) of (Solomon) – and most of the sections are introduced by the children’s mother, Orlenna.

Personally, I much prefer the voices of Orlenna’s children rather than the sections narrated by her.  I think children have an interesting take on life and are less likely to filter what they say (which I think Kingsolver manages to maintain even though this is a novel). I did appreciate the section in which Orlenna explains why she has stayed with her husband as I think it better explains her as a person, as a woman living in a place she does not want to be, as a wife.

“Until that moment I’d thought I could have it both ways: to be one of them, and also my husband’s wife. What conceit! I was his instrument, his animal. Nothing more. How we wives and mothers do perish at the hands of our own righteousness. I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war. Guilty or innocent, they have everything to lose. They are what there is to lose. A wife is the earth itself, changing hands, bearing scars.” (pg. 89)

Kingsolver does a good job delineating between the narrators; her characters’ voices are clear and consistent. Sixteen-year-old Rachel carries more about her looks than her father’s mission or the people of the Congo. Twins Adah and Leah are both bright girls, considered gifted by their teachers and mother. But Adah suffers from brain/development system that leaves her left side twisted and paralysis, and both the Congolese people and her own family treat her as an oddity. Five-year-old Ruth May has an abundant amount of energy and sees and hears things her family thinks she misses.

I’ve mentioned twice in the past week(s) things I find interesting in the novel – colonialism and diamonds – and I found the other aspects of the birth of a nation to be incredibly interesting. The exit of the Belgians in the Congo. The seizure of power by different men in Congo and outside the Congo. I had no idea Americans were worried about the Soviets gaining power (and therefore access to diamonds and other natural resources) in the Congo, no idea the American government acted as it did.

“A map of the Congo lies on the mahogany table between them. While they talk of labor and foreign currency their hunger moves apart from the gentlemanly conversation with a will of its own, licking at the edges of the map on the table, dividing it between them. They take turns leaning forward to point out their moves with shrewd congeniality, playing it like a chess match, the kind of game that allows civilized men to play at make-believe murder.” (pg. 318)

And all of this is coming to head whilst our young narrators struggle with religion and the work of their father. It’s amazing what people will due to bring ‘culture’ to another part of the world. Missionary work gone awry, for sure. I am trying my hardest not to spoil this part of the tale, but the girls’ time in the Congo effects them irrevocably.

“But we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another…Each of us got our heart buried in six feet of African dirt; we are all co-conspirators here. I mean, all of us, not just my family. So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again.” (pg. 474)

So much happens in this novel that it’s difficult to focus on just one aspect that I loved. I haven’t even mentioned gender and race! If you haven’t already guessed, I greatly enjoyed this novel. I really wish I had not left this book to languish on my shelf for so long! I’m also quite glad that I decided to bring the book with me to school or else I would have missed out on it being able to participate in Reading Buddies over at Erin Reads as Kingsolver’s novel was one of the February selections.

There were moments when I was not completely enamored with this tale, moments when I felt like the narrative was moving too slowly. The ending for Adah was a bit strange, a bit too happily-ever-after for this tale. It took me a while to read this book because (a) I did not want to get too far ahead of everyone else reading this book with Erin and (b) school work took over my life for a period.  But last night  I stayed up late to finish this book despite being sick (or maybe because I was sick) and finished the book quite glad that I had (finally!) picked it up.

Others’ Thoughts:

Reading Buddies

Hosted by Erin of Erin Reads, Reading Buddies was born out of Erin’s 2011 reading goal of tackling books on her TBR list. She put out a call to find out if anyone was interested in reading some of the same books along with her. Since she and I shared several books between our two lists, I jumped at the chance to cross books of my TBR list and read along with her. The Poisonwood Bible was one of the selections for February. March’s selections include Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Appointment by Herta Muller.


  1. Congo is a big deal here in Belgium. There are still status of Leopold II everywhere. There’s this one in particular where he’s surrounded by Congolese and it gets vandalized often: someone always cuts the hands of the Congolese, as a reminder of what happened there.

    Very soon after I moved here my bookclub read this and then we visited the Belgian African Museum, which in some parts seems to be frozen in time: a museum in praise of colonialism, a museum of a museum, really. It was one of the best books of that year.


  2. This is one of my favorite books. I was captivated by all of the stories and all of the topics covered. It really gives you a lot to think about. I’m so glad I read it before I started blogging because I don’t think I could have put it all into words. You did a great job.


  3. I agree — I prefer the girls to Orleanna as narrators. I’m captivated by their different voices, their attempts to understand what’s going on, and their unique observations. I’m still only about halfway through the book, but I think my favorite part so far is experiencing the story through the Price girls’ eyes.

    Regarding missionaries, I just got to the part where Price meets Fowles, and I was fascinated by their argument and their very different views of their work.

    There is so much in this book to discuss — I hope we get to touch on it in next week’s discussion!


  4. Great review. I bought this book earlier today, and somehow came across your blog. I’ve seen it throughout the blogosphere, but this was the first review that I actually read. Now, I can’t wait to read The Poisonwood Bible. 🙂


  5. Pingback: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver | Ardent Reader

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