The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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In The Poisonwood Bible how does Kingsolver differentiate among the Price sisters, particularly in terms of their voices?

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Writing a novel from the viewpoint of multiple characters is a challenging undertaking, but Barbara Kingsolver transitions seamlessly between the five women of the Price family. Each of the four Price daughters, together with their mother's occasional insights, recounts their family's missionary experience in the Congo in very unique ways.

The youngest Price daughter, Ruth May, is only five when we first encounter her. She speaks with the innocence—and most importantly, poignant honesty—that only a small child can deliver. Her interpretations of the events that unravel around her in the Congo reveal a lot about her family members and are full of authenticity, humor, and charm.

Leah is fourteen at the outset of the story. Her voice is full of hope and a desire to gain her oppressive father's approval. She is often confused about where she stands in her father's eyes, and she spends much of her narration excusing his behavior and attempting to make sense of his irrational decisions. She experiences a shift in voice later in the novel when she loses faith in her father and her religion, and at this point her narrative style becomes peppered with grit and a greater pride in her abilities (something she used to believe was shameful in the eyes of God and her own father) and a resolve to achieve justice and fairness for herself and those around her.

In contrast to her twin sister, Leah, fourteen-year-old Adah's narration is wry, analytical, and quirky. Adah was born with a condition called hemiplegia, which made one half of her body weaker than the other. Her condition also inspires her to speak in palindromes, as she sees the words as oddities that can be split in half, like herself. She is most critical of her father, Nathan, and offers the most insightful commentary on his hypocritical Christianity. She loves to quote Emily Dickinson, a poet who shares her love for dark humor and her healthy dose of pessimism.

Rachel, the eldest daughter, is fifteen at the start of the narrative. Her voice is dripping with naivete, self-absorption, and judgment. She wants nothing more than to be home in Georgia surrounded by her friends, and her story focuses on the perceived injustices she experiences while in the Congo. She uses a lot of malapropisms, which make her constant judgments of the Mamas and the Tatas of Kilanga appear even more ironic and unnecessary.

The four Price girls' combined narratives present the reader with a complex, engaging, and insightful picture of an American missionary family in the Congo in 1959 and beyond.

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One of the most impressive strengths of Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is that she writes it from the actual voices of 5 different women, and does such a good job of it that you can open up to any chapter in the book and guess which character is speaking simply from the way they speak.  She uses a different voice for each girl, and gives each girl's narration style its own traits that set it apart from the others.

For example, Rachel always mispronounces and misuses words.  She does this in every chapter that she narrates, so if you open up to a section and see a rather headstrong and snobby girl that is whining and misusing words, it's bound to be Rachel.  Here's just a few of her misused words:  "executrate" (execute), "autography" (autobiography), "Morse Scold" (Morse Code), and "preciptation" (participation).  Rachel is also whiney, petulant, cynical, judgmental and sarcastic.  Kingsolver used all of those traits to set her apart.

Adah's chapters all show her fascination with palindromes, or words that spelled backwards are the same, and take on a symbolic meaning.  She also quotes poetry, and has a secret backwards code that she uses quite a bit.  She is also very dark, sardonic and cryptic.  She is self-deprecating and constantly demeaning her importance and emphasizing her crippled stature.

Leah is open, frank, sincere and intense.  She feels passionately about things, and focuses more on the issues of Africa and the injustices that she sees. She is less critical of her father, and wants to fit in with him and also with the African boys and culture around her.  Her openness is a key to her voice, as is her vigorous and intent nature.

Ruth May is easy to pick out because her narration is child-like, her phrases simple, and everything is infused with an innocent and touching naivety and child-like perspective.

Kingsolver uses voice to set apart the narration from each of the Price sisters, and gives each one of them distinct traits and quirks that make them all separate and unique.  It is quite a feat to accomplish, and one that draws the readers into the book even more.  I hope that helps a bit; good luck!

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