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.
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 death, Adah regains her voice, becomes a doctor, and devotes her life to discovering the “life histories of viruses.” Through her, the reader shares Orleanna’s life in America after she leaves Nathan in Africa.
The dedication of the other twin, Leah, to learning French and Kikongo and her willingness to learn political and national truths from the village teacher, Anatole Ngemba, mirror her openness to Congolese culture. She remains in the struggling world of the Congo as Anatole’s wife after her family returns to America, coping and building a life in the same way she labored to learn the grammar of new languages and the political realities of colonialism.
Ruth, the youngest, plays with the village children and teaches them games and some English. She learns from them, illustrating her child’s ability to accept the surface of life and fit in somehow. Her naïve descriptions of family situations and events eloquently illustrate the tensions in her family. Orleanna plays the role of suffering helpmate for Nathan in the Congo. Unprepared for the poverty and grinding work of simply surviving, she does her best, holding on to a semblance of manners and decorum in a jungle-bordered clearing. She takes verbal and physical abuse until Nathan refuses to leave the Congo after the nation has declared independence and Ruth dies. Then she begins to speak her mind and finally leaves, walking with Leah and Adah to any city where she can find transportation back to the United States. In Georgia, she lives a solitary life, compromised in health by her Congo years and continually looking for forgiveness. She has no chance to talk to anyone but Adah about her surreal life in the Congo.
Nathan, deserted by his wife and daughters after Ruth’s death, stays on to preach. He attempts to win converts but becomes suspect as a spirit man who can turn himself into a crocodile. Following an accident during 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. A tyrant, he has failed as a husband, father, and missionary, utterly unable to communicate because he is incapable of listening. By contrast, Brother Fowles, a Catholic missionary, takes a Congolese wife. With their children they reside in the Congo with respect for the culture and functioning as part of a humanitarian network that eases lives all over the country.
Eeben Axelroot, a South African-born white bush pilot, represents the worst of the race bred in Africa, accustomed to a position of legally enforced racial superiority. His knowledge of the country allows him to conduct lucrative smuggling and interfere with local governments by aiding Westerners in finding thugs to carry out their schemes and violence. A womanizer and profiteering presence, he exploits Rachel sexually and simply uses her as he uses Africa, for his personal gratification.
Nelson, an orphaned Congolese boy who works for the Prices; Aunt Elisabet and Mama Mwanza, women who have survived the rigors and dangers of Congolese life; and Tata Ndu, the village chief, play roles in the novel that show how Congolese people interact with Westerners and survive foreign intervention in their lives. Their interactions with members of the Price family reveal the wisdom of Congolese religion, ways of governance based on respect for the elders and consensus building, family support, and the Congolese principle of communal sharing of food and goods to ward off illness and death. Hearing their stories, readers develop a sense of the divide between Western and Congolese cultures. The clash of ideas and values seems unavoidable.
The rift in the Price family’s lives, the devastation of the Congo by the Belgian colonials, and America’s complicity in the destruction of independent Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, create a complex pattern of miscommunication, exploitation, and power. Anatole Ngemba narrates the point of view of nationalistic Congolese persons working for independence and peaceful ways to move from Belgian rule to self-rule. His rational, intelligent voice puts him at odds with the brutal, American-backed Mobutu Sese Seko and results in his imprisonment at different times. He, Leah, their four sons, and his Aunt Elisabet emigrate to Angola looking for a better life in an African country run by Africans. Their future seems difficult at best.