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 precious.
Language and miscommunication are central to the novel, and one daughter, Adah, speaks only in palindromes to herself and no one else for years. Rachel’s perpetual misuse of words and Leah’s dedication to learning French and Kikongo mirror their involvement with the new culture that they face. Leah remains in the struggling world of the Congo after her family returns to the United States, coping and forming a life in the same way that she labored to learn the languages. Rachel relocates and keeps a hotel in Africa, but she keeps to the white minority culture and does not probe for understanding of herself or acceptance with Africans. She is not introspective or critical about American involvement in Africa. When Adah emerges from her voiceless state, she becomes a doctor but decides to devote her life to discovering the “life histories of viruses.” Orleanna lives a solitary life, compromised in health by her Congo years, and the youngest daughter, Ruth, lies in a Congolese grave before the family leaves the country.
Nathan Price, deserted by his wife and daughters after Ruth’s death, continues preaching and moves further and further away from a life even remotely related to his former existence. He becomes suspect as a spirit man who can turn himself into a crocodile. Following an accident in which children drown in a river after their boat is overturned by a crocodile, villagers chase and corner Nathan in an old coffee field watchtower and burn the tower, with him in it. The rift in the Price family’s lives, the devastation of the Congo, America’s complicity in that process, and the forward movement of all—the Prices, the United States, the Congo—weave a complex pattern of miscommunication, exploitation, and power. One cannot read this book without thinking about what it means to be human and the responsibility that each person has to contribute to the good of all others on the planet.