The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

4.3 705
by Barbara Kingsolver

View All Available Formats & Editions

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African

…  See more details below


The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband's part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father's intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

Dancing between the dark comedy of human failings and the breathtaking possibilities of human hope, The Poisonwood Bible possesses all that has distinguished Barbara Kingsolver's previous work, and extends this beloved writer's vision to an entirely new level. Taking its place alongside the classic works of postcolonial literature, this ambitious novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Barbara Kingsolver calls her new novel, The Poisonwood Bible, her "magnum opus." And it is — 500-plus pages of "the deepest-delving" fiction she's ever written, not to mention a fresh new locale. Packed with themes of cultural diversity, political morality, and environmental ethics, this one, unlike her three previous Southwestern novels, is set in postcolonial Africa. The narrative begins in the relatively tame Belgian Congo of the late 1950s, gains speed in the tumultuous early '60s (with the coup of the independent Lumumba government toppled by the CIA-backed, UN-funded Mobutu government), then branches out several decades in the future. "I set out to ask a very long question," Kingsolver says. "What have we done as a nation, a culture, a people to Africa, and where do we go from here?"

Kingsolver has been waiting her entire life to write this novel. When she was seven years old, her mother and father, both public health officials, moved their family to the Congo for several years. She laughs and says, "I'm happy to say my parents are wonderful people, not at all like the family in the book." There they practiced their medicine while young Barbara kept a journal. She explains the impact: "Living in that part of the world during the formative years of my childhood introduced me to the possibility that everything I had always assumed was right could be totally wrong in another place." Although the story is in no way about her personal familial experience, much of the setting and detail are torn from the pages of that journal. That's not to say she didn't do a heapofresearch; there's an extensive bibliography included at the end of the novel. She also made a number of trips back to Africa and had many experts comment on the manuscript, including the activist, journalist, convicted murderer, and cause célèbre Mumia Abu-Jamal, who gave it the thumbs-up from his cell in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary.

The Poisonwood Bible is the saga of the Price family, a rural Georgia family wrestling with inner demons while living in the small African village of Kilanga. It revolves around Nathan Price, an abusive southern Baptist evangelical minister who forsakes his family on his quest to save the souls of the natives. What begins as a church-sanctioned mission ends in a dangerous battle of wills that separates the Price family forever. The action is filtered primarily through Nathan's four daughters, à la As I Lay Dying, with future-time flashbacks from the mother's point of view. It's through the girls that we learn about Nathan's proclivity toward physical and mental abuse, his lack of fear regarding growing political unrest, and his stubborn insistence that the villagers be baptized in crocodile-infested waters. And through their mother, Orleanna, we find out why Nathan lives with such a heavy and hurtful God-fearing heart: In World War II his entire company died during the Bataan Death March. Although Nathan was honorably discharged, survivor's guilt led him to the jungles of Africa and did not permit him to retreat, no matter what the cost. The price of this intractable attitude is disease, death, and madness.

The novel's post-Congo years, which describe what the Price women do with their lives after the 17 months in the bush, are slightly anticlimactic, but the first 400 pages of this book are stunning and historically accurate to boot. Two scenes in particular are extraordinarily vivid and powerful. The first is a depiction of the biannual migration of ants, a literal sea of ants eating its way across Africa. Kingsolver has seen this natural phenomenon firsthand. "It's thought of as a cleansing. You try to remember the baby and the chickens and let the ants go on about purifying the country." The second happens the day the villagers, plagued by starvation, set fire to the high grass to burn out game. Kingsolver has the ability, in a beautifully painful sort of way, to make these scenes come alive with a single sentence: "Birds hit the wall of fire and lit like bottle rockets."

Although Kingsolver does as few media appearances as she can and ignores media hype with "every molecule" of her being, she has once again consented to do a multicity book tour for her new novel. "I was raised Southern," she says. "It's almost not in me to disappoint people. But what's most important to me is being a mother, a writer, and a responsible member of the community in which I live. The other stuff is incidental. Somehow our culture has dragged authors into this celebrity scene, and it's a place where we really don't belong. I have more to offer if I stay at home and write another book."

The Poisonwood Bible is certainly Kingsolver's most daring and quite possibly her most engaging and provocative outing yet. And if staying at home means another book like it, well, surely the world will survive with one less book tour.

Nelson Taylor is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for Time Out, Paper, Bikini, Bomb, and Salon.

Read More

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Oprah's Book Club Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.65(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Book One


And God said unto them,
Be fruiful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion
over the fish of the sea, and over the foul of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

Orleanna Price

Sanderling Island, Georgia

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Away down below now, single file on the path, comes a woman with four girls in tow all of them in shirtwaist dresses. Seen from above this way they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve. The mother especially--watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate. Her dark hair is tied in a ragged lace handkerchief, and her curved jawbone is lit with large, false-pearl earrings, as if these headlamps from another world might show the way. The daughters march behind her, four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman's heart on a different path to glory or damnation. Even now they resist affinity like cats in a bag: two blondes--the one short and fierce, the other tall and imperious--flanked by matched brunettes like bookends, the forward twin leading hungrily while the rear one sweeps the ground in a rhythmic limp. But gamely enough they climb together over logs of rank decay that have fallen across the path. The mother waves a graceful hand in front of her as she leads the way, parting curtain after curtain of spiders-webs. She appears to be conducting a symphony. Behind them the curtain closes. The spiders return to their killing ways.

At the stream bank she sets out their drear picnic, which is only dense, crumbling bread daubed with crushed peanuts and slices of bitter plantain. After months of modest hunger the children now forget to complain about food. Silently they swallow, shake off the crumbs, and drift downstream for a swim in faster water. The mother is left alone in the cove of enormous trees at the edge of a pool. This place is as familiar to her now as a living room in the house of a life she never bargained for. She rests uneasily in the silence, watching ants boil darkly over the crumbs of what seemed, to begin with, an impossibly meager lunch. Always there is someone hungrier than her own children. She tucks her dress under her legs and inspects her poor, featherless feet in their grass nest at the water’s edge--twin birds helpless to fly out of there, away from the disaster she knows is coming. She could lose everything: herself, or worse, her children. Worst of all: you, her only secret. Her favorite. How could a mother live with herself to blame?

She is inhumanly alone. And then, all at once, she isn't. A beautiful animal stands on the other side of the water. They look up from their lives, woman and animal, amazed to find themselves in the same place. He freezes, inspecting her with his black-tipped ears. His back is purplish-brown in the dim light, sloping downward from the gentle hump of his shoulders. The forest’s shadows fall into lines across his white-striped flanks. His stiff forelegs splay out to the sides like stilts, for he's been caught in the act of reaching down for water. Without taking his eyes from her, he twitches a little at the knee, then the shoulder, where a fly devils him. Finally he surrenders his surprise, looks away and drinks. She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water's skin, as if he were lapping from her hand. His head bobs gently, nodding small, velvet horns lit white from behind like new leaves.

It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes’ peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.

I didn't know any name for what I’d seen until some years afterward in Atlanta, when I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book. I read that the male okapi is smaller than the female, and more shy, and that hardly anything else is known about them. For hundreds of years people in the Congo Valley spoke of this beautiful, strange beast. When European explorers got wind of it, they declared it legendary: a unicorn. Another fabulous tale from the dark domain of poison-tipped arrows and bone-pierced lips. Then, in the 1920s, when elsewhere in the world the menfolk took a break between wars to perfect the airplane and the automobile, a white man finally did set eyes on the okapi. I can picture him spying on...

Read More

What People are saying about this

Jane Smiley
There are few ambitious, successful and beautiful novels. Lucky for us, we have one now, in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible....This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Poisonwood Bible 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 705 reviews.
Hygd More than 1 year ago
As a former missionary kid (Mish-Kid) this book brought back tons of memories. I have seen real-life characters that would have fit so comfortably within the pages of this book. The book, I believe, would be a fantastic read for many. I definitely would not say for everyone. Not too many people will read it on a nostalgic level as I did, and for some others who grew up similarly to me, it would bring back emotions and memories they would best forget. It brought back memories to me of the missionary to Borneo who spoke at my school when I was a 13 year old kid. He finished speaking and then invited all who would promise to someday go to Borneo as missionaries to stand, making public affirmation of this promise. No one stood. We were 13. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? The speaker, however, did not free us from the bonds of this assembly. He kept repeating the "invitation". After countless entreaties, we all stood up at once. We'd had enough and were ready to get back to doing the things we wanted. The speaker was thrilled. Did he think that his message had reached us? As far as I know, no one has gone on to missionary work in Borneo and I am now in my late 50's. There was another fellow who sought to bring down the walls of Jericho. Jericho being a local bar. He and his church members marched around their Jericho, playing hymns with a trumpet and singing every night for some time...enough to bring down the walls of any modern day Jericho, if not at least to bring in the local authorities. I totally enjoyed Poisonwood. I knew the people within its pages. Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Before I read this book for a literature class, I had read some of Barbara Kingsolver's short stories. I really liked them, but I wasn't sure how a full-length book would be. And I have to say, the Poisonwood Bible is a fantastic novel. Kingsolver's writing flows and and is full of imagery and detail. It is set in the Congo, and follows the family of Nathan Price, a fanatical Baptist preacher. The story is told through the perspective of the four Price daughters and occasionally their mother. Kingsolver's ability to change her voice to match the personalities of her characters is incredible. My personal favorite Price is Adah, the damaged genius who plays with words and cynicism, but even the characters I disliked had interesting points to make. Definitely worth reading! :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Poisonwood Bible is a well written novel with an outstanding story line. Barbara Kingsolver does a remarkable job of placing the reader in the middle of the jungle along with her characters and she includes enough history of the Congo to make the reader believe that this is almost a true story...even though it isn't! This book is definitely a great read for anyone looking for a great story!
Lolomurph More than 1 year ago
When traveling there is one question that festers in the mind; what do I bring? I'm not sure if Ruth May, Adah, Leah, or Rachel could've ever known what to pack when their father, Nathan Price, dragged them and their mother to the Belgian Congo. They attempted to carry everything they believed they would need in order to live there for a year; which was a different idea in each family member's perspective. As the story progresses, you will discover that everything they brought couldn't have ever prepared them for the tragic and life changing experiences they encountered. The story of their lives in Africa as missionaries is told from the eyes of the Price girls and their mother. With each girl having their own unique experiences they will take you on a remarkable and painful adventure. Meet their limbless neighbor, savor along with them the precious bottle of Clorox, learn the long and arduous art of cooking in the jungles of Africa, and watch as each girl finds their way through this mysterious culture. Barbara Kingsolver does a truly amazing job giving the world a glimpse into the life in Africa and the struggles of missionary families in the novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I enjoyed reading the story through the daughter's narrations because they seemed realistic in the sense that many teenage girls can relate. Rachel's character sticks out to me in that she is a normal makeup-wearing and boy crazed teenage girl like myself. My heart went out to missionary families after reading this novel; especially the mothers. The thought of trying to raise a family in such a culturally different place as Africa is hard to fathom and for that reason I praise Orleanna's character. As I read this book I got a different outlook on my faith as a whole and I obtained a new appreciation for those who give themselves and their families away to the mission field.
AvenueQ More than 1 year ago
If it were not for my English class, I never would have thought to read this book. However, I am glad that Ms. O'Brien did. On the surface this may seem like a chick book, but don't let the Oprah Club sticker fool you. This book is more about survival and faith while completely out of your element. Told from five points of view, this book follows a family of white missionaries into the Belgian Congo in the late 1950's and early 1960's. This book isn't preachy and stands out as a must-read. I have no doubt that this book will invoke profound thoughts in the reader. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
HoosierJoe More than 1 year ago
The first two thirds of this book are fairly interesting and have good character development although it lacks in much of a plot. But it is a good chronicle of an ill advised missionary adventure of a possessed man and the family he drags along with him. The last third of the book is pretensous, boring, preachy, anti American, and anti Christian. In other words, all the same old blah, blah, blah that gets published a hundred times a year by all of these book-a-year authors. I started skimming just to get through the tedium.
Angela Meadows More than 1 year ago
I loved the first 2/3 of the book and couldn't put it down. As they all got older though it was too depressing and never seemed to end. I found myself trying to hurry through it to get it over with.
taciesmith More than 1 year ago
I am shocked that i liked this book as much a I did (I abhore organized religion) but it was a great read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was an insightful look into the results and colonizing influences of Africa. Through the world view of Postmodernism, each of these women discovers an equally valid existence as they seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the world around them. The stereotype of missionaries is easily debunked after a little research into 20th century missions and reading of the whole Bible instead of excerpts. There is more hope offered in these along with the hope found in finding love and contentment in authentic community. This is an interesting read for those who would like a glimpse into postmodernism and African culture. Care should be taken as in any read to not believe everything one reads but seek truth at the source.
shinnyleigh More than 1 year ago
Loved how each chapter was written from the perspective of a different character allowing you to get to know them and how they viewed their current situations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book starts out a little slow with no continuity to the storyline. Starts to get better after about 150 pages. It's a book that makes think and question your beliefs about life, justice, and religion compared to other cultures. In essence, your environment has a lot to do with how you look at the world and other people and cultures. What is accepted as natural and obvious to you may seem ridiculous when looked at from a different point of view. I also learned a little bit of the history of the Conga and America's role in establishing a puppet leader to do it's bidding. It's important to look at the facts honestly instead of making excuses for the misdeeds of America's leaders. Only by holding our leaders accountable, can we make America be the bright shining light that it once was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Poisonwood Bible was an incredible book. There are some very mature subjects in this story, but nothing a high school student couldn’t handle. I enjoyed the book, because of its realistic plot, and obvious reference to events in history. I would recommend it to kids in high school, and older. Knowing the historical references makes the book so much more enjoyable, because you understand what’s happening, and know where the author is coming from. I would recommend this to a high school student, because it gives you a new perspective on life, and things we take for granted. As a women especially, I found this story inspiring, and empowering. I would recommend this story to women the most, because of its importance to women. I think we can all take something from it though. This story reminds us all that no matter where we come from we all are equal. No one person has control or dominance over another. It also reminds us that no matter how helpless we might feel, it’s never too late to change, and we can always stick up for what we believe in.   
NCKATHYB More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful story with many introspective themes. By hearing the voices of each of the female members of the family, you hear several sides of different issues. I was impressed with the historical background and the sympathetic view of the native Africans. The study into the language was also interesting. It makes you think twice about some of our own government's policies. It also made me appreciate what we have, living in the US and how much we take for granted.
larrydarrell More than 1 year ago
A great insight into the goings-on in the Congo of 1960s. Barbara Kingsolver introduces you to characters that will live in your memory forever. She has remarkable depth in her understanding of people, and different cultures, and it makes her a great storyteller.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book because the story is told through more than one perspective. I was hooked in the first few chapters. She is a very descriptive writer who takes you to the places she so eloquently desribes.
Frauhousewife More than 1 year ago
Excellent mix of fiction and history.
nomes0222 More than 1 year ago
I found it interesting the way that Barbara Kingsolver chose to portray the theme of conflicting cultures in this book. She chose a evangelical American priest, by the name of Nathan Price and his family to venture down into the Congo to try and convert the Congolese people to Christianity. The Nathan Price's arrogance and lack of understanding prevents him from doing this in appropriate fashion. He expects the Congolese to relish the teachings that he brings to them, and fails to understand that the native people had their own beliefs and were not going to change them readily. Kingsolver organized the book in a way that each of the women take turns narrating the story. Through this she protrays how the different characters were shaped by their experiences in the jungle. There is the vain, narrow-minded Rachel who says that "You can't just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, whithout expecting the jungle to change you right back." I liked the book because of Barbara Kingsolver's ability to incorporate precise detail and in doing so give the reader a greater understanding of the situation
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a great read! It was intelligent, funny and informative. I read the book in one day and the characters have stayed with me ever since. I have recommended this book to countless people and have got a lot of satisfaction from their positive reviews. It's great to share a treasure!
PagesofComfort 22 days ago
Not for me. I first heard of this book when I was at my aunt's house and she told me how much she liked it. So I borrowed it from her and started reading. I got about 1/3 or 1/2 way through and put it down. I can't remember exactly why I stopped reading it, if it was another book I picked up, lost interest, or what. But regardless, I had my aunt's copy a long time and I needed to give it back to her. So when I saw this at my local used book store, I picked up a copy for myself because I was really interested in reading it (and finishing it this time). My book club picked it for last month's read, so it was the perfect time to get back into it. But the problem was, I couldn't! It was a really slow start for me and I never really got into the story. I struggled to read it, often putting it down, and couldn't concentrate on the book when other things were going on, like my husband watching tv next to me. I didn't enjoy it at all. I found some of the characters to be annoying and their chapters dragged on for me. It's disappointing because I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, it didn't do it for me.
Dax Middlebrooks 9 months ago
I'd love to be able to review this book, but I can't. After countless emails, several chats, and three phone calls with B&N customer service, I still don't have this book in my library and they still won't give me a refund. It has been nearly a month now. I have since purchased this book on Amazon and Audible. I would suggest you do the same.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago