When The Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998, Barbara Kingsolver was already a well-established and respected author. Her fourth novel, however, became an overwhelming critical and popular success, especially after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club. The novel sold more hardcover copies than all of Kingsolver's previous works put together, including three novels, short story collections, a poetry collection, and two nonfiction works.
As in many of her other stories, Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible focuses on the complexities of family relationships and communities in which people experience a clash of cultures. Yet here, she widens her scope to include three decades in the second half of the twentieth century during a time of political upheaval in the Congo. The novel focuses on the experiences of the Price family, who arrive in the Congo in 1959, emissaries of the Southern Baptist Mission League. Orleanna Price, along with her four daughters, struggles to adapt to and to survive the harsh conditions there while her husband, Nathan Price, descends into madness as he tries and fails to force the villagers to adopt his rigid Christian doctrines.
The family's troubles become life-threatening as the Congolese fight for their independence from Belgium and from U.S. interference in their political and social affairs. Kingsolver's intermingling of politics and human drama results in a satisfying tale of betrayal and forgiveness. Reviewers have applauded the novel's compelling characters, its political themes, and Kingsolver's insight into the complex dynamics of the family.