KP Reads

Barbara Kingsolver’s Mission in ‘The Poisonwood Bible’


A Baptist missionary named Nathan Price leaves Georgia and takes his wife and four daughters to a small town in the Congo in 1959. What could go wrong?

The cake mixes the family brings for birthday celebrations turn solid in the heat and humidity, and their stove can’t properly bake them. The seeds they plant wash away in torrential rains, and those plants that do grow bear no fruit because there is nothing to pollinate them. Drought follows downpour.

Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel “The Poisonwood Bible” weaves a tale both personal and political in the distinctive voices of the five Price women. It begins with Congo’s fight for independence and the CIA-backed coup that led to the murder of Patrice Lumumba and ends some 30 years later.

The idea came to her in 1985, Kingsolver said in an interview with The Guardian when the novel was published. She had read a book analyzing United States foreign policy that laid bare for her the way governments made enemies, she said, “overruling the autonomy of developing nations, much the way a condescending parent would rule a child. The analogy struck me as novelesque: a study of this persistent human flaw — arrogance masquerading as helpfulness — could be a personal story that also functioned as allegory.”

She spent the next decade researching and reading African politics, religion, the King James Bible, and missionary memoirs. She even spent a year in the Canary Islands to make research trips to Africa — central Congo remained too dangerous — while her daughter went to a safe European preschool. She read magazines from the 1950s and ’60s to understand the teenage language of the time.

The structure for the novel, she said, rose from her struggles to take in the dark history. She wondered how she should feel about the U.S. stealing Congo’s independence. “Guilty? Indifferent? Scientifically curious, or politically apologetic? I saw many possible answers, and I liked the idea of creating a character who would personify each point of view: a gaggle of sisters under the dominance of a fierce patriarch, each of whom would try to survive him in her own way. They would tell the story. Gradually, each sister gained a personality and a voice.”

Each of the novel’s seven sections begins with a retrospective monologue by Orleanna, the girls’ mother. Having returned to Georgia, she recalls points in time from their experience in Africa. Her words are followed by chapters from her daughters, each with a distinctive voice, told in the present tense.

Each daughter is unique. Rachel, 15, is the oldest. She is obstinately American, a quintessential teen. “I always wanted to be the belle of the ball, but, jeepers, is this ever the wrong ball,” she writes. She is also the queen of malapropisms, longing for deodorant pads, flush toilets, “all the things I took for granite.”

The twins are a few years younger and have been in the gifted program at school. The dutiful Leah tries valiantly to follow in her father’s footsteps but ultimately cannot remain blind to his flaws, rigidity, and incapacity to understand the Congolese villagers he seeks to convert. She will go on to marry a Congolese dissident and remain in Africa.

Adah is hemiplegic and does not speak due to a birth injury. But she loves language, and her chapters are filled with rhymes, puns, and palindromes. When the family loses its stipend from the church and the country spirals out of control, the deathly ill Orleanna pleads with Nathan to save the family. Adah writes, “Our father irritably countered that the Lord operates in mysterious ways. As if she did not know. Serious delirious imperious weary us deleterious ways.”

Ruth May, age 5, is a clear-eyed observer, describing all she sees while also getting to know the local children.

“The grown-up Congo men are all named Tata Something,” she writes. “Tata Undo wears a whole outfit, cat skins and everything, and has a hat. Father had to go see Tata Undo to pay the Devil his due. And the women are all Mama Something even if they don’t have children.”

The story of the Congo itself is told somewhat indirectly through the villagers, an unreliable pilot who brings supplies to the village, and an itinerant preacher more attuned to the culture than Nathan.

Nancy Pearl, former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, described four doors to reading: plot, character, setting, and language. “The Poisonwood Bible” is a telling example of Kingsolver’s ability to open those doors with her compelling characters, delivering a well-rounded and compelling account of a family at the center of personal and political upheaval.