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.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Poisonwood Bible Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1156 words.)
Book One: Genesis
The narrative presents multiple points of view as Orleanna Price and her four daughters each tell their own story of their family's experience in the Congo. Orleanna Price opens The Poisonwood Bible from Sanderling Island, Georgia, where she lives decades after her family left the Congo. While she thinks of Africa, she speaks to her dead child who is unidentified at this point. She remembers one afternoon when they went on a picnic. Even though she admits that the child she is speaking to was her favorite, she begs her daughter to leave her alone.
Fourteen-year-old Leah begins the story of the family's life in Kilanga, Congo, in 1959. The Price family came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bringing as many of the comforts of home as they could carry. Five-year-old Ruth May talks about segregation back home and insists that her sisters will not be going to school with the village children. She admits that she is bad sometimes and explains that Adah, Leah's twin, is brain damaged and hates all of them.
Fifteen-year-old Rachel takes stock of the situation when they land and realizes that they will have no control over their lives in the Congo. She immediately misses the comforts of home more than the others. The village men, bare-chested women, and naked children welcome them, singing their own versions of Christian hymns. After Nathan delivers a brief sermon about God punishing "sinners" for their nakedness,...
(The entire section is 2643 words.)