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Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’

First Published: Harper Collins (1998)

ISBN: 978 0 571 20175 4

The Poisonwood Bible confronts it’s readers with a sadness that nestles into your heart and is hard to shake. Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist from Georgia, ruins the lives of his wife, Orleanna, and four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May, when he takes them into the Congo on a missionary trip. To the detriment of his family and himself, all he takes is a large pair of blinkers and his faith. The Poisonwood Bible tells us, through the alternating perspectives of the 5 females, how they cope with the years in the Congo and how they rebuild their lives afterwards. Some are more successful than others. All women suffer at the hands, words and decisions of Nathan Price. It is heartbreaking when you find out who will never leave the Congo at all. 

Each daughter has a very different personality and attitude and vastly divergent relationships with their father. It is a highlight of the stylistic techniques employed in the novel to see just how believable and real each of these perspectives come across. 

I think The Poisonwood Bible makes such an impact because, while being set in the Congo and dealing most obviously with the theme of missionaries, the novel is actually a discussion of many more issues. A theme the novel touches on which I think is closely tied to that of missionaries is colonisation. The Prices, especially Nathan, embody the ideals and approach taken by settlers and invaders of the many colonised countries throughout the world. He arrives in the Congo thinking he can transplant the Baptist religion directly into the chest cavity that is Congolese culture. This unadaptable mind set never really leaves Nathan Price and ultimately leads to his downfall. This is despite many setbacks along the way which, to the reader, point out the devestatingly erroneous methods Nathan Price employs. Painfully, the baptist preacher seems to be the only ignorant one. An example of this comes on page 312:

‘ “Tata Jesus is Bangala!” declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon. More and more, mistrusting his interpreters, he tries to speak Kikongo. He throws back his head and shouts these words to the sky, while his lambs sit scratching themselves in wonder. Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’

The Poisonwood Bible is a fantastic read. It will stay with you long after you finish. Kingsolver  makes you feel devastating sadness and guilt about the follies and injuries caused by our predescessors. From the point of view of a New Zealander living in Australia, I was particularly led to contemplate the history of colonisation in both countries and the status of both the Maori and Aboriginal people today. A discussion of this is not something I want to go into in this blog post, I merely wanted to point out the far reaching significance of the ideas expressed in The Poisonwood Bible

This novel truly is a modern classics, and one I feel I will go back to time and time again. 


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