The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver is a bestselling novel about a missionary family, the Prices, who in 1959 move from Georgia (U.S. state) to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, close to the Kwilu River. (The nearest town, an impossibly long journey away, is Bulungu.) The Prices' story, which parallels their host country's tumultuous emergence into the post-colonial era, is narrated by the five women of the family: Orleanna, the long-suffering wife of Baptist missionary Nathan Price, and their four daughters—Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.
The Poisonwood Bible
Orleanna Price narrates the introductory chapter in five of the novel's seven sections. The narrative then alternates among the four daughters, with a slight preference for the voice of the most outspoken one, Leah. The four girls increasingly mature, as each adapts differently to African village life, to the misogyny of their father Nathan, and the political turmoil that overtakes The Congo in the 1960s.
Since the Congolese villagers are seen through the eyes of the growing daughters, the view changes. At first, they appear as ridiculous savages. But as the girls mature, the villagers become fully fleshed-out human beings, immersed in a complex and sophisticated culture. Nathan's lack of responsiveness to this culture wears out his family's welcome, but he refuses to leave. Only after a series of misfortunes—culminating in the death of one of the daughters—do the women leave Nathan Price to his folly.
The survivors take different paths into their futures, the novel ending at the time of Mobutu Sese Seko's death in the 1990s. Rachel, the eldest, marries Axelroot at seventeen, and after two more marriages is the owner of a luxury hotel close to what is now Brazzaville. Leah marries Anatole, has a large family of four boys, and remains in the impoverished Congo. Adah returns to the United States with their mother Orleanna, attending college and later, medical school. She undergoes a lengthy experimental treatment that restores full use of her legs and she begins to speak. Orleanna herself returns to spending life on the Georgian coast, enjoying Adah's occasional visits.
- The Prices
- Orleanna Price – Nathan's wife and the mother of their four daughters. Born in Mississippi, she is deferential to her husband but independent-minded
- Nathan Price – Orleanna's husband. An evangelical Baptist minister and a World War II veteran from Georgia, determined to 'save Africa for Jesus'.
- Rachel Price (15 at start of the novel) – the oldest Price girl; blonde and self-centred, she is obsessed with her looks and American consumer culture.
- Leah Price (14 at start of the novel) – Adah's tomboyish twin; intelligent, self-confident, competitive, tenacious and compassionate. The most outspoken of the women, Leah is prone to dogmatism and concerned with her own salvation.
- Adah Price (14 at start of the novel) – Leah's twin, hemiplegic from birth. Silent but witty, she is brilliant in Maths and languages, but is envious of her twin. She is also skeptical, sarcastic, envious, and prone to self-pity.
- Ruth May Price (5 at the start of the novel) – the youngest Price girl, she is playful, independent, adventurous, perceptive and inquisitive.
- The Underdowns – Belgian mission chiefs who welcome and send supplies to the Prices
- Eeben Axelroot – a corrupt South African mercenary pilot
- Anatole Ngemba – the village teacher; an orphan, his fluency in English allows him to be an interpreter for Nathan's sermons.
- Brother Fowles – New Yorker, the Prices' predecessor on the mission. Married to a local woman.
- Mama Tataba – a village woman, formerly employed by Fowles and who works for the Prices.
- Tata Ndu – the chief of Kilanga.
- Tata Kuvudundu – the spiritual leader of the village.
- Nelson – an orphaned village boy, he is Anatole's student who works for the Prices. He is forced to sleep outside in the chicken coop.
- Methuselah – a parrot left by Brother Fowles, it is excellent at imitating human speech.
Reception and awards
The Poisonwood Bible was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999. The book won the 2000 Boeke Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.