Review: Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”

“Tata Jesus is bangala!” So cries the missionary Reverend Price as he preaches the Gospel in the steamy heart of the Congo. Papa Jesus is dearly loved. Or, alternately, Papa Jesus is a deadly poisonwood tree. The irony of Reverend Price’s misunderstanding (and refusal to acknowledge it when he is corrected) captures the spirit of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible with deadly accuracy.

It is the summer of 1959, and Reverend Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna, and their four girls- Rachel, Adah & Leah, and Ruth May, trudge into the depths of the Congo to change the hearts of the natives and teach them the word of God. That is their intent, but when they leave the Congo in 1961 it is they who are forever changed.

Their story is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, and the political turmoil befalling the country is mirrored in the turmoil within the Price family once they set foot into the heart of such a deeply foreign land.

The Poisonwood Bible is written from the perspective of the five Price women- Orleanna and her children. Orleanna struggles to protect her children from the utterly foreign dangers of deep Africa- monsoon, hunger, draught, hordes of army ants, venomous snakes- as well as from their own father, whose self-righteous zeal softens for no one, not even his five-year old daughter. Meanwhile her daughters must struggle to grow up among a culture as different as night and day from their own. During a time when the greatest concerns of their peers are sweet-sixteen parties and tulip-tailored suits in Poison Green with mother-of-pearl buttons, the Price girls find themselves struggling to adapt to a new language, a new culture, and the jarring realization that not only their personal abilities but even the very foundation of their belief system are utterly useless in the heart of the Congo.

The Poisonwood Bible is about many things, but what always stands out most to me is the theme of personal change- of learning to adapt. Of realizing that your way of viewing the world is not the only way there is, nor should it be. The Price family goes into the jungle to help the people of the Congo- to save their souls- but they end up needing the people of the Congo much more than the Congo needs them. They are shaken to their very cores by the struggles that they endure, and each family member responds differently, rising to the occasion (or failing to do so) in different ways, with the help of the people they thought they were coming to save.

While the story seems on the surface to be critical of Christian missionary work, I do not believe this is necessarily the case. Rather what is most critiqued is the approach that Reverend Price takes, which is one of hellfire and condemnation and an unwavering resistance to change. He stubbornly refuses to try and share the Gospel with the Congo in terms that will resonate with them, in a classic and highly unsavory example of narrow-mindedness at its worst. Orleanna and her girls, on the other hand, embrace what the native people can teach them about their world and in turn share their surviving beliefs as they learn to understand them in an entirely different light.

This book will appeal to a wide base of readers- particularly those who love historical fiction and books about different cultures and places. The point of view is first-person, with each of the 5 women narrating in turn, which keeps each chapter fresh and interesting. The reader is given a rich vision of life in the Congo as certain situations are presented 5 times in 5 different ways.

If you have never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver, this is an excellent introduction to her style, which I personally can’t get enough of!