Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
After Orleanna Price’s opening sortie, which serves as a prologue, readers of The Poisonwood Bible find that the Price family comes from Bethlehem, Georgia, at the beginning of the next section. Combined with the tension inherent in the title, their place of origin signals why Kingsolver calls the book a political allegory. What follows is the story of the Price family’s arrival at, sojourn in, and leave-taking from the Congo as they try to spread God’s word among the lost. The novel is told in five distinct voices, those of Orleanna Price and her daughters Leah, Ruth, Rachel, and Adah. Nathan Price has no lines in the novel, despite his position as head of the family—mostly as family despot, feared and unresponsive to the pleas and needs expressed by the women in his care.
What readers learn of their existence is filtered through the eyes of distinctly different sisters and their mother, but all of it comes freighted with the message that Nathan Price will refuse every native custom and way of being in favor of his own. This attitude causes suffering and loss. His refusal to plant his garden in the protected raised hillocks, as is the native practice, results in all of their plants being flooded out. Ironically, his tin-ear pronunciation of bangala, which he shouts out every Sunday, tells the Congolese people over and over that Jesus will make them itch like the poisonwood tree, instead of what he wishes to say, that Jesus is...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of the Price family’s arrival in the Belgian Congo in 1959, their establishment of a household and mission in the village of Kilanga, and the ultimate leavetaking of all but Nathan and Leah Price from the newly independent Congo. Arriving as independent missionaries loosely affiliated with American Baptists, the Price family sets up headquarters in a house recently vacated by another missionary. The novel is told in five distinct voices: Orleanna’s, Leah’s, Ruth’s, Rachel’s, and Adah’s. Nathan Price has no voice in the novel, despite his position as head of the family. Through their narrations of life in the Congo, he emerges as a stubborn, compassionless man, a family despot—feared and unresponsive to pleas and needs expressed by the women in his care.
What the reader learns is filtered through the eyes of distinctly different sisters and their mother. All, however, convey clearly that Nathan Price arrogantly refuses native customs and ways of being in favor of his own righteous practices and beliefs. His high-mindedness causes suffering and loss from the beginning. For example, he ignores Mama Tataba’s advice about planting his garden in protected, raised hillocks, as the natives do, so in the first hard rain all the plants are washed out. He persists in regarding the natives as lost and backward, insulting the village chief and insisting on baptizing children in the river even though the village people know that crocodiles pose a threat to anyone in the river. He pays no attention to the realities of the language or culture around him, and, ironically, his mispronunciation of bangala, which he shouts out at the close of his sermon every Sunday, announces that Jesus is “poisonwood,” which will make them itch like the poisonwood tree, instead of what he wishes to say, “that Jesus is precious.”
Language and miscommunication are central to the novel. Each daughter represents a response to life and to the African experience through language. Rachel, the eldest, perpetually misuses words, signaling a basic confusion about English, an inability to which she clings as she fails to comprehend the value of native Congolese culture and social structure. For her, Africa remains a land that needs rescuing by any Western power with the time and patience to accomplish the task. Ultimately, Rachel relocates and keeps a hotel in South Africa, serving the white minority culture. She survives three husbands, remains nonintrospective, and lacks the desire or mental acuity to be critical of American or European involvement in Africa.
Adah, the silent twin, observes everything. She speaks only in palindromes to herself and no one else. Her internal monologues focus on the inconsistencies in Nathan Price’s approach to religion, her relationship to her sisters, and the ideas and customs they experience as outsiders in the Congo. Returning to America with her mother after Ruth’s...
(The entire section is 1214 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Price family, in 1959, journeys to the Belgian Congo from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia, as Christian missionaries. The Reverend Nathan Price and his family, loosely affiliated with Southern Baptist sponsors, arrive at the village of Kilanga with no understanding of what they will face. They know nothing of their living conditions or the types of challenges they will encounter as Nathan preaches his spiritual message.
Orleanna, Nathan’s wife, and their daughters Rachel (fifteen years old), Leah and Adah (twelve-year-old twins), and Ruth May (six years old), tend to their authoritarian father, who sees himself as the guide, guardian, and absolute ruler of his family of females. Their sole duty is to make Nathan’s life in Kilanga tolerable by creating his meals and keeping his home. He liberally hands down advice and often-cruel, even sadistic, punishment, forcing the girls to, among other things, copy long passages of Scripture to make amends for their sins or hitting them or their mother when they displease him. He is a figure to be feared, and his only connection to his family is relaying the condemnations of an angry God for giving in to human weakness.
Each daughter has her own perspective on Africa, Nathan, and the family’s mission. Rachel, longing only for a sweet-sixteen party, abhors the heat and dirt of the Congo, not to mention its distance from the United States. She has nowhere to go, no friends, and no interest in what is around her except as it furthers her desire to feel pretty or act more grown up. Leah, thoughtful and longing for righteousness, tries hard to win Nathan’s approval and blessing. Imperfect Adah, suffering from hemiplegia (paralysis of half the body), carries on a consistent internal monologue but restricts her speech to palindromes; she also limps when she walks. Ruth May takes in the world around her with characteristically childlike attention to details, including facts about her family and the games and language of the village children. She inadvertently reveals her father’s character by remarking on his nastiness and dislikes.
Orleanna complies with Nathan’s demands as well as she can in a kitchen where her Betty Crocker cake mixes only serve to highlight the distance she and her family are from the United States or any other modern world. She tries to learn something about the local ways of managing food from Mama Bekwa Tataba, the family’s housekeeper. Each day Orleanna faces the taxing work of building fires, hauling water, preparing as-fresh-as-possible food, and presenting a decent meal at noon. The laundry and other housekeeping chores, even with Tataba’s help, prove daunting, and Orleanna begins to lose her stamina along with her faith in the rightness of her and Nathan’s calling.
Nathan disdains help of any kind,...
(The entire section is 1156 words.)