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The Poisonwood Bible

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Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.

Emily Mitchell
Beautifully written.
Entertainment Weekly
Emily Burns
This story of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary to the Belgian Congo in 1959, on the eve of Congolese independence, is a deep, multifaceted narrative. Told in alternating chapters by Nathan's wife and four daughters, it's the compelling story of a wife stretched beyond her limits, of daughters struggling to grow up in an alien environment, and of the Congo's development. Reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it is a story of the insanity that can befall a white man set on bending Africa's landscape and people to his own will. Kingsolver is a great talent, ably using African languages in her prose while developing a story with all the elements of a true classic.
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life
New York Times Book Review
Haunting . . . A novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women.
Newsweek
Fully realized, richly embroidered, triumphant.
Time
Powerful . . . Kingsolver is a gifted magician of words.
People
Beautifully written . . . Kingsolver's tale of domestic tragedy is more than just a well-told yarn . . . Played out against the bloody backdrop of political struggles in Congo that continue to this day, it is also particularly timely.
USA Today
Tragic, and remarkable..A novel that blends outlandish experience with Old Testament rhythms of prophecy and doom.
Boston Globe
The book's sheer enjoyability is given depth by Kingsolver's insight and compassion for Congo, including its people, and their language and sayings.
Glamour
Most impressive are the humor and insight with which Kingsolver describes a global epic, proving just how personal the political can be.
Chicago Tribune
Compelling, lyrical and utterly believable.
San Diego Union-Tribune
A triple-decker, different coming-of-age novel, but also a clever look at language and cultures.
Portland Oregonian
A novel that brims with excitement and rings with authority.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Kingsolver's work is a magnum opus, a parable encompassing a biblical structure and a bibliography, and a believable cast of African characters.
Kate Clinton
In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver is at the top of her fiction form. She writes spectacularly in the varied voices of the four daughters and the wife of Baptist missionary Nathan Price. The big bully of the pulpit transplants his family from Bethlehem, Georgia, to the Belgain congo, where they are often hilariously, but finally woefully, unprepared for the hardships of the jungle. Kingsolver also masterfully explicates the complex and tragic history of the Congolese rebels of 1959, their struggle for independence, and the outbreak of war.
The Progressive
Newsday
A bravura performance . . . A subtle and complex creation, dealing with epic subjects with invention and courage and a great deal of heart.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A powerful new epic . . . She has with infinitely steady hands worked the prickly threads of religion, politics, race, sin and redemption into a thing of terrible beauty.
Chicago Tribune Books
Compellinglyrical and utterly believable.
Front Page
Haunting..A novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women.
Gayle Greene
As these characters let go of old beliefs and construct new visions, Barbara Kingsolver leads us to see the limits of our own.
Women's Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this risky but resoundingly successful novel, Kingsolver leaves the Southwest, the setting of most of her work (The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams) and follows an evangelical Baptist minister's family to the Congo in the late 1950s, entwining their fate with that of the country during three turbulent decades. Nathan Price's determination to convert the natives of the Congo to Christianity is, we gradually discover, both foolhardy and dangerous, unsanctioned by the church administration and doomed from the start by Nathan's self-righteousness. Fanatic and sanctimonious, Nathan is a domestic monster, too, a physically and emotionally abusive, misogynistic husband and father. He refuses to understand how his obsession with river baptism affronts the traditions of the villagers of Kalinga, and his stubborn concept of religious rectitude brings misery and destruction to all. Cleverly, Kingsolver never brings us inside Nathan's head but instead unfolds the tragic story of the Price family through the alternating points of view of Orleanna Price and her four daughters. Cast with her young children into primitive conditions but trained to be obedient to her husband, Orleanna is powerless to mitigate their situation. Meanwhile, each of the four Price daughters reveals herself through first-person narration, and their rich and clearly differentiated self-portraits are small triumphs. Rachel, the eldest, is a self-absorbed teenager who will never outgrow her selfish view of the world or her tendency to commit hilarious malapropisms. Twins Leah and Adah are gifted intellectually but are physically and emotionally separated by Adah's birth injury, which has rendered her hemiplagic. Leah adores her father; Adah, who does not speak, is a shrewd observer of his monumental ego. The musings of five- year-old Ruth May reflect a child's humorous misunderstanding of the exotic world to which she has been transported. By revealing the story through the female victims of Reverend Price's hubris, Kingsolver also charts their maturation as they confront or evade moral and existential issues and, at great cost, accrue wisdom in the crucible of an alien land. It is through their eyes that we come to experience the life of the villagers in an isolated community and the particular ways in which American and African cultures collide. As the girls become acquainted with the villagers, especially the young teacher Anatole, they begin to understand the political situation in the Congo: the brutality of Belgian rule, the nascent nationalism briefly fulfilled in the election of the short-lived Patrice Lumumba government, and the secret involvement of the Eisenhower administration in Lumumba's assassination and the installation of the villainous dictator Mobutu. In the end, Kingsolver delivers a compelling family saga, a sobering picture of the horrors of fanatic fundamentalism and an insightful view of an exploited country crushed by the heel of colonialism and then ruthlessly manipulated by a bastion of democracy. The book is also a marvelous mix of trenchant character portrayal, unflagging narrative thrust and authoritative background detail. The disastrous outcome of the forceful imposition of Christian theology on indigenous natural faith gives the novel its pervasive irony; but humor is pervasive, too, artfully integrated into the children's misapprehensions of their world; and suspense rises inexorably as the Price family's peril and that of the newly independent country of Zaire intersect. Kingsolver moves into new moral terrain in this powerful, convincing and emotionally resonant novel.
Library Journal
It's been five years since Kingsolver's last novel (Pigs in Heaven, LJ 6/15/93), and she has used her time well. This intense family drama is set in an Africa on the verge of independence and upheaval. In 1959, evangelical preacher Nathan Price moves his wife and four daughters from Georgia to a village in the Belgian Congo, later Zaire. Their dysfunction and cultural arrogance proves disastrous as the family is nearly destroyed by war, Nathan's tyranny, and Africa itself. Told in the voices of the mother and daughters, the novel spans 30 years as the women seek to understand each other and the continent that tore them apart. Kingsolver has a keen understanding of the inevitable, often violent clashes between white and indigenous cultures, yet she lets the women tell their own stories without being judgmental. An excellent novel that was worth the wait and will win the author new fans. --Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L.
John Skow
...Kingsolver...is a gifted magician of words -- Her novel is both powerful and quite simple....also angrier and more direct than her earlier books.
Time Magazine
Michiko Kakutani
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.
The New York Times
Jane Smiley
There are few ambitious, successful and beautiful novels. Lucky for us, we have one now.
Washington Post Book World
Newsweek
...[D]evastating...five narrators [compete] to break your heart.
NY Times Magazine
A quantum-leap breakthrough...learned, tragicomic and sprawling.
The Nation
Barbara Kingsolver has dreamed a magnificent fiction and a ferocious bill of indictment..What we have here'with this new, mature, angry, heartbroken, expansive out-of-Africa Kingsolver'is at last our very own Lessing and our very own Gordimer.
Lee Siegel
...[T]he most successful practitioner of a style in contemporary fiction that might be called Nice Writing....Barbara Kingsolver can be a very funny writer; her infrequent outbursts of humor make up her best quality.
The New Republic
LA Times Book Review
A powerful new epic..She has with infinitely steady hands worked the prickly threads of religion, politics, race, sin and redemption into a thing of terrible beauty.
Katherine Sojourner
In her most complex novel to date, Kingsolver presents her five narrators—the wife and daughters of a Baptist missionary sent to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The characters are fully developed and their compassionate telling of their story is truly memorable.
Kirkus Reviews
The first novel in five years from the ever-popular Kingsolver (Pigs in Heaven) is a large-scale saga of an American family's enlightening and disillusioning African adventure.

It begins with a stunningly written backward look: Orleanna Price's embittered memory of the uncompromising zeal that impelled her husband, Baptist missionary Nathan Price, to take her and their four daughters to the (then) Belgian Congo in 1959, and remain there despite dangerous evidence of the country's instability under Patrice Lumumba's ill-starred independence movement, Belgian and American interference and condescension, and Joseph Mobutu's murderous military dictatorship.

The bulk of the story, which is set in the superbly realized native village of Kilanga, is narrated in turn by the four Price girls: Leah, the 'smart' twin, whose worshipful respect for her father will undergo a rigorous trial by fire; her 'retarded' counterpart Adah, disabled and mute (though in the depths of her mind articulate and playfully intelligent); eldest sister Rachel, a self-important whiner given to hilarious malapropisms ('feminine tuition'; 'I prefer to remain anomalous'); and youngest sister Ruth May, whose childish fantasies of union with the surrounding, smothering landscape are cruelly fulfilled.

Kingsolver skillfully orchestrates her characters' varied responses to Africa into a consistently absorbing narrative that reaches climax after climax, and that, even after you're sure it must be nearing its end, continues for a wrenching hundred pages or more, spelling out in unforgettable dramatic and lyric terms the fates of the surviving Prices. Little recent fiction has so successfully fused the personal with the political. Better even than Robert Stone in his otherwise brilliant Damascus Gate, Kingsolver convinces us that her characters are, first and foremost, breathing, fallible human beings and only secondarily conduits for her book's vigorously expressed and argued social and political ideas. A triumph.

Library Journal
08/01/2014
An enduringly popular story of one family's existence in postcolonial Africa, often found on "best of the best" lists of audiobooks. Narrated with an anthropological tone by Dean Robertson.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060175405
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/7/1998
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 215,688
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned a devoted readership at home and abroad. In 2000 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country's highest honor for service through the arts. She received the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work, and in 2010 won Britain's Orange Prize for The Lacuna. Before she made her living as a writer, Kingsolver earned degrees in biology and worked as a scientist. She now lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.

Biography

According to the biography on her website, Barbara Kingsolver began writing around the age of nine. Her early "oeuvre" included poems, short stories, and essays, including one noteworthy piece on school safety that was published in the local newspaper, helped to pass a local bond issue, and netted the author a $25 savings bond -- "on which she expected to live comfortably into adulthood."

Kingsolver left her native Kentucky to attend DePauw University on a piano scholarship; but intellectual curiosity (the same quality that informs her writing) prompted her to transfer from the music school to the college of liberal arts where she majored in biology. Immediately after college, she traveled in Greece and France and returned to the U.S. to pursue her master's degree in science from the University of Arizona. She worked for a while as a science writer for the university before becoming a freelance journalist. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club Award.

Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees, was composed entirely at night during a period of chronic, pregnancy-related insomnia. Published in 1988, this story of a young woman transplanted from Kentucky to Tucson was reviewed enthusiastically by critics. " As clear as air," rhapsodized The New York Times Book Review. "It is the southern novel taken west, its colors as translucent and polished as one of those slices of rose agate from a desert shop." Readers, too, proclaimed the story a delight.

Since then, Kingsolver has produced a string of bestselling novels, including Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible (an Oprah's Book club selection), and Prodigal Summer. She has also authored collections of her poems (Another America), short stories (Homeland), and essays (Small Wonders); as well as nonfiction narratives like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Good To Know

In 2008, Kingsolver delivered the commencement address at Duke University, offering graduates advice on "How to be Hopeful."

She is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock and roll band consisting of published writers, including Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Dave Barry, and Stephen King among others.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      April 8, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Annapolis, Maryland
    1. Education:
      B.A., DePauw University, 1977; M.S., University of Arizona, 1981
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Book One

Genesis

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...

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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, October 26th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Barbara Kingsolver to discuss THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.


Moderator: Welcome, Barbara Kingsolver. Many of us at barnesandnoble.com have fallen in love with THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, and based on the amount of questions we've received already tonight, this book has touched many readers across the internet. Are you ready to dig in?

Barbara Kingsolver: Yes, I am.


Hattie Norman from Chattanooga, Tennessee: Please explain the title of the book, POISONWOOD BIBLE.

Barbara Kingsolver: Like all of my titles, when you have read the book, you'll understand the title. I use titles as a sort of key for unlocking the themes of the book through every chapter, from beginning to end. This one is no exception.


Gary from Boston: Wow! I can't believe you're online. Why did you decide to set this novel in Africa? It's such a change of scenery from your other novels.

Barbara Kingsolver: I've been thinking about this novel for more than 20 years, actively researching and writing it for ten. It was no casual decision. It would take too long to explain fully why I chose the place, the time, the political drama, and the characters for this novel. Just trust me, I had a very good reason.


Bliss from Denver: I'm curious to find out how you wrote this novel. Did you write it in chronological order, from the perspective of the five females, or did you write each individual story separately and combine them. Thanks.

Barbara Kingsolver: Neither. I don't work in a very linear way. I conceive of a question first, which establishes my theme. In this case, I wanted to construct a political allegory in which the story of a missionary family would shed light on the much larger story of postcolonial Africa. I wanted to tell it in the voices of the missionary's wife and daughters. I began with an outline of the plot, then I spent years refining the individual voices, and writing and rewriting sections of the narrative, not necessarily in order.


Soraya from New Haven, Connecticut: In THE POISONWOOD BIBLE you demonstrate a facility with the Bible. Some of the lines you pick for "The Verse" are deliciously appropriate. Have you studied the Bible? How do you know so much about it?

Barbara Kingsolver: I was not very familiar with the Bible before I began to work on this book. My brother and I undertook to read the whole thing when I was about nine years old because we thought it would make us better people or something. But we got bogged down about a quarter of the way through Genesis. Since then, I hadn't really ever read the Bible, but when I began working on this novel in earnest, I knew I would need an intense familiarity with at least the Old Testament and much of the New. So I picked up that project where I left it 30 years ago and I studied the heck out of the King James Bible. It was one of many reference books I found invaluable in the writing of this novel.


Betsey Williams from Anacortes, Washington: Barbara, I'm interested to know how your formal education influenced your choice of writing and your choice of subjects about which to write. DePauw is a beautiful and great school; how does a degree in biology influence your writing?

Barbara Kingsolver: I wouldn't say that my formal education has ever influenced my outlook on life or my writing. I would say it's the other way around. Because of my interest in the natural world, I studied a lot of biology. Also a lot of history, cultural anthropology, and so forth. These interests and all the things I've learned about them naturally inform everything I choose to write.


Kristina Plath from Delhi, New York: Hi, Barbara. I loved THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I loved Adah's voice, and I wondered how you were able to make it sound so convincing for her, and also for Doc Homer; they both have a different way of thinking, and what you write is so believable. How did you get that? Thanks.

Barbara Kingsolver: It's surprising to me and a little scary that on the occasions when I've decided to write from the point of view of someone who's brain is seriously impaired, I've found that it comes very naturally. Makes me wonder about myself. In the case of Adah, whose brain was seriously damaged on one side at birth, I did a lot of study about the brain, how it's organized, and what sorts of linguistic and behavioral changes tend to manifest after different kinds of injuries. It helps that my husband has a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology and is an expert on the brain. He could point me to the right reference books and help me understand. But after a point the science ends and the poetry takes over. I can't represent what every person with that sort of brain damage experiences. I can only create the experience of one imaginary character whose experience I hope will be both unique and in some way representative as well.


Elda from Michigan: I recently read an article in The New Yorker that described the atrocities that are going on in the Congo right now. The article was basically a plea for the United Nations and the United States to get involved. What do you know about this issue and why do you think it's been relatively ignored?

Barbara Kingsolver: I know very little more about it than what I've read in the same sources you have, since I have very few contacts left in the Congo. All have left or are no longer living. So, I can't speak about what's going on there at this moment. What I do know is that the atrocities, the corruption, and the sort of economic genocide that took place in the Congo for more than 30 years under Mobutu are just about unparalleled on the planet. I think it's a disgrace that we, meaning the United States government, put Mobutu into power and held him there for more than three decades. I believe that the best thing we could do now for the Congo is stop interfering. I believe the people of the Congo deserve a chance for the first time in centuries, to decide the fate of their own country without outside interference. It may take them several generations to sort this out and recover from the damage we did there. Nevertheless, I hope the U.S. stays out.


Pat from Pennsylvania: Do you think an author's political conscience makes her write better fiction than a writer who may only be interested in telling stories? Some of my favorite authors -- I'm thinking of Margaret Drabble in particular, but the same could even be said for Susan Isaacs -- began with lighter books, love stories, humorous stories, always distinguished by powerful writing -- but in later years they've moved into a more self-conscious political kind of book, highly moralistic. I wonder if you're making that same move, and what if anything you have to say on this subject.

Barbara Kingsolver: I believe what makes good writing is passion. If you are passionate about issues of social responsibility, then those issues will necessarily rise through whatever you write. You wouldn't be true to yourself or very successful as a writer, I don't think, if you avoided writing about the things for which you care most deeply. If you care most deeply about Gothic romance, then, for heaven's sake, that's what you should write. But if you are moved by injustices you see around you in the world, matters of gender, or race, or class, for example, your passion on those subjects will illuminate your stories even if they are simply love stories. In the case of the writers you mentioned, I agree that a kind of moral vision rose to the surface over the years. In the case of my own writing, my very first novel, THE BEAN TREES, was essentially driven by my interests in various issues of social justice. That novel addresses child abuse, the difficulty of growing up as a girl in poverty, immigration law, and the sanctuary movement and US foreign policy in Central America, just for starters. I cared about all those things and couldn't have left them out of that story. I don't think I could have been anything other than a political writer right from the beginning.


Hattie Norman from Chattanooga, Tennessee: Your description of Orleanna's grief over Ruth May's death moved me deeply. I cried. From what personal experience did you draw? I would also like to know what you are writing next?

Barbara Kingsolver: I'll answer the second one first. I would like to know what I'm writing next! I finished THE POISONWOOD BIBLE in July, the first reviews came out in August, and since then the demands of publicity and my readers have not allowed me one single day at my writing desk. I look forward to becoming a writer again when all this settles down. As for the other part of your question, as a writer I draw on every experience I've had myself or that I've witnessed to conjure the emotional states of my characters. That doesn't mean I have been through everything my characters do or feel. It only means that I pay close attention to emotional states and am very empathetic. I believe it's a little like being an actor. Sometimes to portray a great loss, you remember losses of your own and then magnify them. It's not very easy to explain. Maybe that's the best I can do.


pac87@aol.com from XX: Ms. Kingsolver, first I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your writing. Secondly, I want to get your opinion as to why so many top fiction author's latest books are historical fiction? With Russell Banks' CLOUDSPLITTER, T. C. Boyle's RIVEN ROCK, and heck even Elmore Leonard's latest novel CUBA LIBRA was historical fiction. What drove you to write historical fiction?

Barbara Kingsolver: I would say that the four or five historical novels I can think of that appeared among the 700 books published this season don't necessarily constitute a trend. I also would never claim to know why any other author wrote the book she or he did. My own reasons for writing THE POISONWOOD BIBLE are a complex culmination of an entire lifetime of experience, interests, and concerns about things like cultural imperialism, cultural difference, and political mistakes. Nevertheless I've noticed that since we are nearly at the end of the millenium, just about everything anyone does is being analyzed as an "end of the millenium" endeavor.


Janine from Oakley, California: Did you do special research to come up with the old commercial slogans and jingles you mention in the book? You also use some expressions I haven't heard in awhile like "believe you me." Just memory, or more? (By the way -- thank you for everything you have ever written. I am now bowing in front of my computer and saying, "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy." Thank You!) And congratulations on another daughter!

Barbara Kingsolver: First of all, you are plenty worthy. Every reader is a valuable and worthy critic. It's astute of you to notice that the teenage dialogue in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE was a special challenge. Teenage language is notoriously specific to its time and quickly out-of-date. At the time these girls were asking "Aren't you glad you used Dial. Don't you wish everybody did?" and saying things like "man oh man..." I was only three years old. So, memory would hardly serve. I had to do tons of research for this novel, but researching teenage jargon was some of the most fun research I did. I prowled used bookstores and scored every magazine from the late 50s I could possibly find. The advertisements were invaluable. By the time I finished writing the novel, I was hearing this stuff in my sleep.


Denise from Netscape: Hello. I can't wait to read your latest book. I'm so excited. However, my question is about publishing. I have just completed my first manuscript and want to know whether or not you think it's appropriate to send a query to many agents at one time. I have heard several different answers. I have a list of 20 that are interested in my genre. Thank you for answering my question.

Barbara Kingsolver: I believe the polite thing to do is query one at a time. If you don't hear from someone reasonably promptly, I think it's OK to write again and if you still don't hear, move on. I know you're excited to get your novel out there, but the whole process takes lots of patience. Unless your book is extremely topical, it won't hurt to take your time from the beginning and start off on the right foot with the agent who will ultimately become one of the most important relationships in your life.


Janine from San Francisco, East Bay: Are you taking a break after this book tour and promo stuff? I mean with two children you'd be busy no matter what, but are you working on another book? Any gigs planned with the Rockbottom Remainders? Do you have a new signature song, or still "Dock of the Bay"?

Barbara Kingsolver: When my tour is finished on November 7th, I've promised to devote myself full-time to the kids, at least through Christmas. They've been patient with my travel and deserve some solid Mommy time. I look forward after that to starting a new book. No, I'm no longer playing with the Rockbottom Remainders. We have officially disbanded. It was fun while it lasted and probably lasted longer than our talents warranted. However, I am still musically involved. My husband is a guitarist who has just released a new CD called "Fingers Crossed" (http://members.xoom.com/vireomusic is his web site). He's touring with me and playing in bookstores, and I'm actually going to play with him on a few gigs. So that's a lot of fun. I'm also raising two musicians. My eldest plays violin in an orchestra and my two-year-old can make a percussion instrument out of anything.


Marco Aurlio from Brazil: Hi, dear Barbara, how are you? It's a pleasure for me to be able to ask you a question. Unfortunately here in Brazil we don't have your books in Portuguese, but I hope they'll bring them soon. I'd like to know: What authors have influenced you in your writing? Thank you.

Barbara Kingsolver: Hi, dear Marco. It's nice to hear from Brazil. You're right. My books have not yet been translated into Portuguese, though that's coming soon, I believe. I have been influenced by a long list of writers. I think some of the most important ones were the women writers I discovered in my late teens. Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and Marilyn French, just to name a few. I had previously been taught in school that the great themes in literature were man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. I always felt a bit left out of that whole show. When I discovered books like THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK or THE WOMEN'S ROOM, a whole new kind of thematic material presented itself to me and I understood for the first time that what happens among women could also be literature. I think it was the first time I really understood that I could also be a writer.


Vick from Trinidad: What are the main qualities required of a successful author?

Barbara Kingsolver: I could never presume to tell anyone else what they have to do to be successful, because success is a quality so personally defined. Writing a memoir that will be read and cherished by your children could be considered by some people success. My own definition of success is to define the questions that seem most important, to address issues that could alter the way people live and cooperate in the world, and to write books that will honor my best intentions. On a more practical level, I feel successful if I have written my best, not compromised my ideology, and thrown away all the bad prose that I typed into my keyboard. For me, being a writer is mostly a matter of carving out the time to do it five days a week for at least a few uninterrupted hours because I am also raising children. I push myself hard, cope well with interruption, and never watch TV. Mainly, I would say, it's about getting yourself to sit down and write, day after day. Forget waiting for the muse. She has a lousy work ethic.


Penny from Santa Fe, New Mexico: I just want to say thank you.... Your books are moving and satisfying and meaningful. Hope you get off the road, and back to work soon!

Barbara Kingsolver: Me too!


Moderator: Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver. This has been a fascinating hour. Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?

Barbara Kingsolver: Thanks everybody for your interest and keep reading.


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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 703 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Mish-Kid Memories Brought to Life

    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.

    16 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2011

    UGH Get Spark Notes instead!

    I suffered through this tome because my son had to read it for school. If you like slow moving, liberal biased, caucasion bashing then this book is for you! The subtle praises for communism and not so subtle praises of socialism made me want to SCREAM! Oh and let's not forget that Christians in this book are all crazy, Thank goodness the daughters don't fall victim to THAT insanity! What a stupid and highly over-rated read The Poisonwood Bible is.

    14 out of 49 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2009

    Fantastic!

    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! :)

    10 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 28, 2012

    Huge disappointment

    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.

    9 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent book!

    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!

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2009

    The Poisonwood Bible- An outstanding novel

    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.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 13, 2011

    Good book

    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.

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 4, 2011

    Loved it.

    I am shocked that i liked this book as much a I did (I abhore organized religion) but it was a great read!

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    No Matter What Your Religious or Political Stance Is, This Is a Great Read

    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.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2012

    Great read

    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.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2011

    Recomend - interesting history lesson

    B&N why ARE your nookbooks priced higher than paperback? Will be checking out more of the free books for a while.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2010

    Mixed Review

    Very well-written TRASH... I am disappointed in the absurdly negative light Kingsolver has shed on Christian missionary work in foreign countries. Nathan Price is clearly not the norm, as she would lead the uninformed to believe. Smacks of self-aggrandisement... Did anyone else catch the nod toward her own parents' work in Africa, in the dedication?

    3 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2007

    A reviewer

    I thought this was a pretentious, boring, uninspiring waste of time. I persevered to the end for my book club but was constantly looking to see how many pages left to go. It did not evoke any emotions in me other than irritation and annoyance at the one-sided and limited portrayal of political realities.

    3 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2011

    bad good bad

    starts out poorly. it gets good really good. then it gets nack to really boring. i am not interested in so much political writing.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2010

    Flawed

    I know a lot of people liked this book but I didn't. It has great character development and several interesting lines etc. but her argument is flawed.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2010

    If you like an epic story....

    From beginning to end, this story kept me engaged.
    As with Prodigal Summer, her characters become well defined and enrich the story through their observations. I especially liked learning about the differences in cultures and perspectives... I did not want the story to end, I'd like a part two!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 2, 2010

    Realistic

    Excellent mix of fiction and history.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Barbara Kingsolver's thrilling book, The Poisonwood Bible

    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

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2009

    Fabulous Characters

    Not knowing much about African culture and lifestyles, The Poisonwood Bible, has given me a new appreciation for the people who live there, as well as forced me to be more thankful the luxurious life I have. Kingsolver does a fabulous job drawing the reader in early and continuing to hold the reader's attention for most of the book with her wonderfully put descriptions and emotionally appealing events and characters. I have only complimentary things to say about the novel, except for the complaint that the last quarter of the book was a bit slow and focused too much on African history.

    The novel begins in 1959 with a Baptist family moving to Africa to do work for the Southern Baptist Mission League in Kilanga. Nathan Price, the father of the family, is the determined preacher who immediately starts out to be a character with highly controversial intentions and harsh actions. Along with him on the trip are his four growing daughters and constrained wife, Orleanna. Instantly upon starting the novel the reader is drawn into the four girls' personalities, which are displayed in the chapters they each narrate. Their personalities and contrasting opinions are what kept me intrigued and unable to stop reading.

    Kingsolver does a great job giving each of the girls her own precious and unique voice. It was very appealing to me to be able to see their different desires change throughout the novel through these distinct voices. Kingsolver brilliantly exemplifies their differences by having each girl notices particular details in Africa, of which they question and judge. And since each girl pays attention to different aspects of her new lifestyle, the reader is provided with crucial information on the setting, the character relationships, and African culture. Kingsolver also, in giving each of the girls extremely differing opinions, was able to successfully give the novel rich and intriguing characters that have questionable desires in an unbelievably life-changing experience for them, as well as provide thoughtful themes for the reader to discover. The girls' development into distinguished young women and the love I developed for them, and just the way Kingsolver portrays the complicated character relationships and events they're forced to encounter, makes the book one of my personal favorites.

    The only thing I can say that I truly disliked is the change of focus to African history at the end of the book. The beginning was filled with rich emotionally appealing events and thought provoking ideas, and the end is a lot about the country's development. I lost some interest in the novel at that point. Other, than that I would highly recommend the book, especially to those who are looking for a deeper gratitude for the lucky life they've been born into.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2008

    atypical missions

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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