Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

I'm not quite sure why I waited so long to read The Poisonwood Bible except I think I had it mixed up with Prodigal Summer, which I own and started a few times but never got in to. Nonetheless, I'm happy I finally gave the book a try, especially in the well-done audio version I listened to, which is narrated by Dean Robertson in a convincing southern accent.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family, who travel to the Congo as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. The wife, Orleanna, and the four children, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, are led with maniacal religious fervor by the father, Nathan. The story is told from the sisters' alternating viewpoints as they struggle to adjust to life in Africa.

The voice of each sister is especially well-done and reinforced by small shifts in tone from the audio narrator. Ruth May, the youngest, is naive and enthusiastic. Leah and Adah are twins, but Adah was born with some kind of deformity that results in a limp. Adah is silent yet sarcastic and irreverent; Leah is devoted to her father, which makes his fall from grace in her eyes all the more painful. Rachel is vain and flighty. Kingsolver is especially talented at making each girl, and their parents, fully realized characters. It quickly becomes clear that although Nathan is the reason they all travel to the Congo, he is mostly absent from their lives.

The first half of the book explores the family's first year or so in the Congo. The family's interactions with and lack of understanding of the people Nathan is there to convert take center stage. The second half of the book takes place over several decades as the family members go their separate ways and live out their adulthood. Because this part of the novel is spread out over such a long period, some of the intimacy of character that so defined the first half is lost.

Poisonwood Bible takes place over a turbulent time in the history of the Congo as the country transitions from Belgian rule to various forms of independence. Like another book I read this summer, White Woman on a Green Bicycle, Poisonwood Bible explores these changes through the eyes of white individuals living in the country.  Though, like in White Woman, this means the native Congolese voices are largely absent, the technique does expose the stereotypes and prejudices of non-citizens and particularly white Americans.

For me, it was the detail and nuance of the sisters' daily lives in a world that first appears strange, but then became familiar, that drew me in and kept me hooked.


  1. I was forced to read this in high school. I was upset by the size of it...and that it was coupled with a Hardy novel. So glad I read it anyway. It is STILL one of my favorite books ever! I think I read it in 2-3 days. You make me want to revisit this read! I enjoy reading your reviews, BTW. :D

  2. I had to read Kingsolver's The Bean Trees in high school but don't remember reacting very strongly to it--I think I would have enjoyed reading this much more! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. It was nice stumbling on your take on this book. Check out mine if you get a chance. Tell me what you think.