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The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel [Paperback]

Barbara Kingsolver
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,236 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
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful stuff! June 20 2004
By A Customer
I've always liked THE BEAN TREES and always will--it's one of my favorite books in the world. So I was worried about picking up THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I didn't want to be disappointed. I shouldn't have worried, for Kingsolver gives us an equally good story in this book. With a plot about a Baptist minister who sets out for the Congo to save lost souls, only to find that "life is what happens when you had other plans," the power and drama of this novel is reminiscent of McCrae's BARK OF THE DOGWOOD or possibly some of Pat Conroy's books (though their subject matter is completely different). The writing is sheer poetry, and Kingsolver's handling of the material is masterful and sure--something like Walker's THE COLOR PURPLE. But I'm only making comparisons for the sake of attempting to get other readers to try and understand how good this book is. If I had only two books to recommend this year, this would be one of them.
Also recommended: Jackson McCrae's THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD--A Tour of Southern Homes and Gardens
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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
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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long but rewarding read Dec 21 2006
By J. Wong
One of the unfortunate things about my education was that I never got a sense of the vast scope of world history. Even when I did, I only learned about American or European history, leaving out any in-depth mention of Africa. Throughout my upbringing, I have retained this notion of Africa being some amorphous blob of corruption, overpopulation and disease all rolled into one. Sad to say, I could feel myself once empathising with Rachel when she sputtered that the Africans were not capable of governing themselves. However, after reading the Poisonwood Bible, I could say that I am at least beginning to be aware of the dangerous consequences of marginalising my viewpoints of Africa or Africans, or anything in general. The book as given me a refreshing look at a continent which, not completely by its own fault, was transformed into a backdrop for tribal warfare, militants and corrupt politicians squabbling over Africa's natural wealth. The clear cut characters that Kingsolver creates enables the reader a multifaceted view on the disintegration of their family, and of their father's mission in Kilanga.

Contrary to another review I read, I don't believe that the book misleads the reader to believe that missionaries are bad people at all. If anything, one of the parts that stands out for me is when Brother Knowles declares that "There are Christians and then there are Christians." Part of our duty as visitors to a land is to be respectful of peoples' traditions. We must understand first and then we may try to be of help. The book covers so much ground, and so many topics. Although it is a long read, I highly recommend it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars �Bible�holds together perfectly June 16 2004
Writing a good book is like sewing a tailored suit. All of the pieces have to exactly fit together or the whole thing will fall apart. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is a perfect fit.
Preacher Nathan Price takes his family into the jungles of the Belgian Congo in 1959 to bring Christianity to the Africans. Told through the eyes of his wife and daughters, the story becomes a complex web of events, which leads to the eventual redemption of the Price family, but not the father.
Heading for the jungle, the Price family takes its version of life's necessities, like instant cakes and sewing shears. The Congo unravels the Price's perfect plan and family members have to reconstruct their lives around the rules of Kilanga, the village where they live.
Kingsolver crafts a careful story and shifts easily from the narration of Orleanna Price to her daughters. Rachel is the oldest and is consumed more with herself than with any problem that might occur in her family or in the village. Next in line are her two twin sisters, Leah and Adah. Leah is the adventurous tomboy and Adah is a bookworm and near-mute who has been crippled since birth. The youngest daughter is Ruth May, and her preciously innocent acceptance of the Congo provides a dear point of view about the country.
Especially funny is the take each of the Price woman has on her father. It is with a dark comic edge that the daughters recount the woes Nathan Price experiences trying to spread the Lord's word.
First Price, who does not speak Kilanga's native tongue of Kikongo, tries to baptize the village's children in the river. Years before, an alligator ate a child in the river and the villagers are sure that Price plans to have their children eaten.
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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 months ago by Mike in Vancouver
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing novel of guilt and redemption
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'... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Veronica
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, fascinating
Barbara Kinsolver offers a novel based on her own childhood in Africa. She makes clear it is a novel, not an autobiography. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Dr. Jochen Robert Moehr
5.0 out of 5 stars My first Kingsolver ...
... 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 more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
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 my favourite books
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... Read more
Published on Jan. 14 2009 by mabel
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
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