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The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel [Paperback]

Barbara Kingsolver
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,233 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 23 2005 Perennial Classics
<P>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.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.


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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 6 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 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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Made me feel like I was really in Africa June 22 2004
Format:Paperback
I really have been out of touch with reading for a long time. Thanks to Oprah for getting me back into it. I read Poisonwood Bible last summer. I could not put it down. I thought 'till the end that it was a true story. Barbara is a fantastic writer. It was all so real to me that I could almost smell the Congo. I could feel the heat of the Congo & almost feel the pain of starvation the village struggled with. I cried at the end when the youngest was bitten by the snake. I mean that I cried like she was my own child. I don't even have kids. Now, I can not wait to read another of Barbara's books. I have since been picking up any thing to do with Africa. Everyone should read this book
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Succumbs to its flaws. Feb. 26 2003
Format:Paperback
A very ambitious book, indeed, in which Kingsolver tells the story from five different viewpoints, five unique voices. And she tackles Africa, attempting to tell a story about the Congo/Zaire that will relate to us, her First-World readers. It's ironic, then, that Kingsolver, while trying to write a book on Africa, actually writes about book about the United States.
The first part of "The Poisonwood Bible" is an interesting narrative as told by the four Price daughters of a Baptist missionary family adapting - or failing to adapt - to the culture and climate of a Congolese jungle village in the 1960s. The four girls each have a distinct voice, representing four distinct types - from Rachel, the spoiled American teenager, to Leah, the intelligent achiever who ends up "going native."
But the book quickly turns political. Kingsolver has the Prices in the Congo through independence, Lumumba's election and subsequent assassination financed by the CIA, and the unpleasant aftermath of civil war and chaos. The different girls soon devolve into political allegories. Rachel's spoiled teen act devolves into the racist, ignorant pro-American persona that is ultimately responsible in Kingsolver's world for the subjugation of African democracy and prosperity. Leah, the achiever, remains in Africa and becomes a kind of heroic figure of opposition to American power and culture, renouncing material comforts to ally herself with the New Africa. Kingsolver's tone gets preachy, and the complex problems of the African subcontinent get simplified into a single palatable message: the West is keeping Africa down.
I don't doubt Kingsolver's resolve, her beliefs, and I'm not questioning her research or sources one bit. Her depiction of Africa feels real.
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Most recent customer reviews
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 stef_s_87
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
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading
I've been a Christian for a few years and know someone who has been a missionary in Africa, and in several other countries - she is NOTHING like the missionary character in this... Read more
Published on April 6 2006 by smw73
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