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Poisonwood Bible [Hardcover]

Barbara Kingsolver
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,234 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 24 1998 Oprah's Book Club
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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Oprah Book Club® Selection, June 2000: As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortune across a span of more than 30 years.

The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price's wife and daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate--teenage Rachel's tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their "French congregations"; Nathan's refusal to take his family home is a "tapestry of justice"). More problematic is Kingsolver's tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.

Despite these weaknesses, Kingsolver's fully realized, three-dimensional characters make The Poisonwood Bible compelling, especially in the first half, when Nathan Price is still at the center of the action. And in her treatment of Africa and the Africans she is at her best, exhibiting the acute perception, moral engagement, and lyrical prose that have made her previous novels so successful. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers 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. Agent, Frances Goldin; BOMC selection; major ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Look in a Foreign Land April 7 2005
Format:Paperback
I though The Poisonwood Bible was one of the best books I have ever read. After reading a couple of other books by Barbara Kingsolver, which I happened to love, I decided to read this novel. This book is incredibly intense and has so many meanings. I am a sophomore in high school and for a research paper, I am comparing this book with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Kingsolver actually used Achebe's novel for research for her own. While The Poisonwood Bible describes the infiltration of African villages by Christian missionaries through the eyes of the missionary's family who is forced to travel with him to the Congo, Things Fall Apart describes this invasion through the eyes of a powerful African man in his village. These books primarily preserve the culture and religions of Africa before Africa was colonized and the culture was influenced by outsiders.
My personal favorite character is Adah, a hemiplegic twin sister, who is very cynical but is able to view the world impartially. Writing in her backward ways, Adah prevails throughout the novel, finally accepting religion and herself.
I strongly recommend The Poisonwood Bible to anyone who is unaware of the exceptional African culture and the conspiracies leading to disruption in the normally peaceful country. Though I once thought of Africa as a primitive country, I now realize how exceptional their ancient customs are and truly appreciate their extraordinary languages and unusual religions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favourite books Jan. 14 2009
By mabel
Format:Paperback
This is a fantastic book. It's a little slow to get into because each chapter is from a different daughter's point of view; but once I was a quarter of the way through I abandoned all homework, and read straight through to the end.I recommend it to people all the time.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing novel of guilt and redemption June 9 2014
Format:Paperback
It is hard to put down my thoughts here. I don't come from the same kind of background as the main characters but I understood and related to the mother, and all the daughters' experiences of the missionary father who was very brutal and a tyrant. The first half reminded me of a family saga, the second was more historical. Every chapter is written from the viewpoint of a different person which is a literary style I enjoy but the second half of the book was a change of pace for me and distracted me at first. Then I began to enjoy the style and yes, the history. I learned so much about the Republic of Congo and now I am interested to find a book on the history of that beautiful country.
Was I affected by the characters by the end of the book? Definitely a resounding yes. The author did a great job of bringing the characters to life and I could understand why each character acted and ended up the way they did except the father. I was mainly drawn to the mother because I have been in situations where I followed someone and ended up having to brave my own way with my children. The pain and guilt they all felt especially the mother came across very well. The last paragraph just blew me away and I ended up actually crying. I have never lost anyone that way ( I don't want to give any spoilers)but I can imagine I would feel much as the mother did. The ending was sweet and succinct. I want to read more by this author.
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5.0 out of 5 stars My first Kingsolver ... May 1 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
... and the best one to my mind.... her descriptions of Congo, of the live of the family, the story line and the character development are all reasons why this book needs to be read!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Kingsolver's Best Feb. 5 1999
Format:Hardcover
I first discovered Barbara Kingsolver several years ago and loved her novels, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven. Even though she, herself, is not Native American, her books stand as were beacons of enlightenment about their often misunderstood world today and have been praised throughout the world. The Poisonwood Bible is a more ambitious book, and the landscape is the Belgian Congo, but her voice lays bare the same kind of clashes and misunderstandings that exist between cultures.
Well researched and deeply moving, it tells the story of a missionary's family from Georgia who move to the Congo in the late 1950s. The father is a religious fanatic, driven to convert the world to his brand of Christianity .His wife and four daughters have no choice but to respect his wishes. Using the technique of alternating first-person voices, each chapter is told from the point of view of these five female family members.
A poisonwood tree grows by their house. It is beautiful but it causes rashes and boils on the skin. It's a great metaphor.
There is the mother, Orleanna Price, who struggles daily with the effort of keeping her family together in a world that is suddenly devoid of electricity, plumbing and food. Precious wood must be found for the stove, water must be boiled to remove parasites, and vegetables do not grow. The oldest daughter, Rachel is 16. She misses her friends and her life in Georgia and yearns for nailpolish and hairdos. Then there are twins of 14: Leah and Adah. Both are smart and open to learn about the world around them but Adah cannot speak or move one side of her body. The littlest one, Ruth May, at age 5 teaches the native children to play games.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting tale but the style isn't my cup of coffee.
I'm always interested in ex-pat's stories and their eye opening discoveries but telling the stories from four points of view was frustrating to me for some reason.
Published 2 days ago by Mike in Vancouver
5.0 out of 5 stars Poisonwood Bible
I could not put this book down. It is beautifully written and each chapter is told by one of the five female members of the family, each offering their perspective. Read more
Published on Sept. 21 2011 by Shiraz
5.0 out of 5 stars Poisonwood read is a good one
Absolutely loved this book. Loaned my original purchase to a friend who sent it a charity sales room. I wanted it on my bookshelf to read again so I purchased another copy!
Published on Aug. 29 2010 by Kat
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my top 10 favourites
By far, this novel is one of my top ten favorites of all time. It's hard to actually pick one, but this resounds as a wonderful read-no matter how many times I re-read it. Read more
Published on May 25 2009 by R. La Salle
5.0 out of 5 stars one of the best
As a student of political science with a boyfriend who happens to be taking me to DR Congo in July to meet his family, this book struck home. Read more
Published on Dec 17 2007 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars I cried.
I usually hate fiction (aside from the classics). I generalize most novels as a waste of my time. This was something I was forced to read for a World Civilizations class a few... Read more
Published on Sept. 16 2007 by Hari K. Puliyampet
5.0 out of 5 stars This one blew me away
The family saga of the Price family in rural Georgia, this is one dysfunctional and southern gothic tale that you won't want to miss. Read more
Published on July 16 2007 by Jane Smith (the REAL Jane Smith)
4.0 out of 5 stars A difficult start
It took me three trys... but once I got into it , I could't put it down.

I found this to be tough at the beginning ... Read more
Published on March 21 2007 by kebmo
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!
An engrossing, compelling story made all the more fascinating by its true-life historical context. Kingsolver is here proven to be remarkably talented, as evidenced by her ability... Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2007 by N. Fehr
5.0 out of 5 stars A long but rewarding read
One of the unfortunate things about my education was that I never got a sense of the vast scope of world history. Read more
Published on Dec 21 2006 by J. Wong
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