The Poisonwood Bible – Book Review

Believe this: the mistakes are part of the story. I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible. -narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible-

The Poisonwood Bible is a family saga which begins in 1959 when Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister, moves from Georgia to the Belgium Congo with his wife and four daughters. His goal, as a missionary, is to bring Christianity to the people living in a tiny village called Kilanga. The novel is narrated alternately by Nathan’s wife Orleanna and her daughters Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May beginning when they arrive in the jungle and continuing through several decades.

This is a novel about a complex region which has struggled with independence, war, starvation, sickness and overzealous interference from other countries. In the midst of this heartbreaking history, the Price family’s struggles are played out in parallel. The family, clearly unprepared for life in the harsh environment of Africa (‘We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes…‘) become immersed in a culture rich with spirituality and dependent on community to survive the severe weather conditions and lack of food.

Barbara Kingsolver creates characters whose voices are unique, darkly comic, and compelling. Rachel, a teenager who chooses to save her hand mirror when the village is attacked by a swarm of killer ants, represents the naive and ignorant American attitude toward societies different from our own. Adah, born crippled and mute, sees the world forwards and backwards – a unique vision which allows her to appreciate a new culture. Leah is her father’s little girl – trying desperately to gain his approval…and it is she who changes the most as the novel progresses. Ruth May, the “baby” of the family, is also its ambassador of good will. And finally there is Orleanna, married to a damaged man whose fears and insecurities are turned brutally against his family. It is Orleanna who begins and ends the story.

The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant work of fiction which encompasses several themes. Kingsolver writes beautifully, and her love of language is played out in Rachel’s comic butchering of phrases and words; and Adah’s tendency towards palidromes and reading backwards.

Nommo, I wrote down on the notebook I had opened out for us at our big table. Nomom ommon NoMmo, I wrote, wishing to learn this word forward and backward. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 210-

That would be Axelroot all over, to turn up with an extra wife or two claiming that’s how they do it here. Maybe he’s been in Africa so long he has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is call Monotony. -as narrated by Rachel in The Poisonwood Bible, page 405-

Thematically, the novel examines the ideas of faith, redemption, and forgiveness. More widely, it explores the history of the Congo with all its beauty and terror, the effects of war, and the terrible impact of government when it collides with individuals. Ultimately the novel reveals our humanity when presented with great challenges as each character takes a different path on their way to resolving their own inner turmoil.

This is a novel which begs to be read, if only for its magnificent scope. In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver demonstrates exactly why she is an author who is lauded and recommended over and over again. It is impossible for me to write a review which will do this book the justice it deserves. I can only say: Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Highly recommended.

Passages from The Poisonwood Bible

About Faith:

My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 68-

About War:

A war leaves holes in so much more than the dams and roads that can be rebuilt. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 523-

About Who We Are:

The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 496-

About Survival:

So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 474-

To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 200-

I can still recite the litany of efforts it took to push a husband and children alive and fed through each day in the Congo. The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster’s crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes – for there were hookworms lying in wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 90-

About Grief:

As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-

About Destiny:

Had I not married a preacher named Nathan Price, my particular children would never have seen the light of this world. I walked through the valley of my fate, is all, and learned to love what I could lose. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-

A Map of the Congo Region

(with link to information)

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  1. I am also a huge fan of this book. 🙂

    • Jill on July 12, 2008 at 18:32

    I haven’t read this book yet but everything tells me I will love it. I love the passages you included – such wonderful use of language.

    Your flags must have filled this book!

    =) Jill

    • Laura on July 12, 2008 at 18:52

    Wendy, this is an excellent review and makes me want to re-read this book. I read it so long ago, and loved it, but I was also in a very different place in my life and I think I would get even more out of it now. Thanks for bringing it back to me!

    • Wendy on July 12, 2008 at 19:47

    Heather: It is so wonderful, isn’t it?

    Jill: You will definitely love it. And yes, I had many, many stickers marking the pages 🙂

    Laura: Thank you! This is definitely one of those books which would be just as wonderful, if not better, when read a second time.

    • Jeane on July 12, 2008 at 22:18

    This is one of my very favorite books. I enjoyed reading your thorough review.

    • Teddy on July 12, 2008 at 22:47

    Excellent job reviewing this awesome book! It is one of my favorites of all time!

    • Andi on July 13, 2008 at 06:02

    I’ve wanted to read some of Kingsolver’s fiction since I inhaled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and it seems this could be the place to start. I always sort of pooh-poohed it in the wake of it being an Oprah book and all (too much hype), but the way you describe it sounds great!

    • Jenny on July 13, 2008 at 07:52

    This is one of those books I picked up as a duty read and LOVED. Everyone else in my family hated it when I forced them to read it, but I am in love with it. Every time I pick it up casually and read a few pages, I’m hooked and I have to read the entire thing at once.

    • Wendy on July 13, 2008 at 08:35

    Jeane: I can see how this made it onto your favorites list.

    Teddy: Thanks 🙂

    Andi: I know what you mean about “Oprah Books”…but this one is well-worth reading. I didn’t even realize Oprah had chosen it until after I’d read it…

    Jenny: This book sat so long on my shelf…I just never felt motivated to read it. Boy, am I glad I finally did! I can see re-reading it again sometime.

    • Linda Sheehan on July 13, 2008 at 08:45

    A superb review Wendy; I wish I could write like this. This is one of my all time favorite reads; Oprah or not! Thanks.

    • Wendy on July 13, 2008 at 09:37

    Thanks Linda 🙂

    • Somer on July 13, 2008 at 12:59

    I have loved everything I’ve read by Barbara Kingsolver! I’m glad you enjoyed this one – you should read Prodigal Summer – I liked that one even more.

    • Wendy on July 13, 2008 at 19:36

    Somer: I think I am going to have to start working my way through all of Kingsolver’s books…everyone seems to love them!

    • Typ0 on July 13, 2008 at 20:52

    In the “great minds think alike column,” I too read The Poisonwood Bible” this week and quite enjoyed it. The author did a great job painting a fairly accurate portrait of the effects that the developed world has on on the developing world. The book provoked quite a bit of conversation in our household about its historical accuracy and obvious political slant.

    This “we know more than the the locals” attitude is everywhere in the developing world and it was interesting to see the author deal not only with the TDG (total do-gooders) while they were in the Congo initially but also the long-term effects of their that their choices had on their lives and the lives of those around them.

    • Wendy on July 14, 2008 at 09:21

    Typ0: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree there is a political slant – Kingsolver makes her point quite eloquently, don’t you think? A really astounding piece of literature! Glad you enjoyed it as well 🙂

  2. Fabulous review. I can’t think of anything else to say. This is worthy of publication!

    • Wendy on July 15, 2008 at 08:17

    Thank you, Les – what a flattering comment!!!

  3. This has been on my shelf for a while now. Your review makes me want to move it to the read soon list.

    • Wendy on July 16, 2008 at 15:58

    Suzi: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it 🙂

    • Trish on July 16, 2008 at 18:25

    For some reason this was a difficult read for me (probably the timing–had just started back at school), but I loved it and really would like to read it again. Glad this was such a great read for you too.

  4. I’ve always been interested in this book, but I’ve never quite picked it up. I’m definitely going to have to read it now. Thanks for the great review!

    • Wendy on July 17, 2008 at 07:57

    Trish: I’ve heard this was a difficult read for many people. I think it is a book that builds, and gets better the further in you get.

    Literate Housewife: Oh, you really should give it a go…I waited a long time to read it too!

  5. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read it twice, the 2nd time with my book club (you can read about it here and here if you’re interested). There are so many themes, levels, ideas … it just begs to be discussed. I’ve recommended this book to several people and not one has disliked it.

    • Wendy on July 22, 2008 at 16:26

    Heather: Thanks for the links! What a great book club you seem to have over there 🙂 I agree, there is much to discuss. I have a feeling I will be reading this one again someday.

  6. I was just looking at this on my bookshelf last night, thinking that I really need to re-read this and all other Kingsolver. I love everything I’ve read by her, but this is for sure the best.

  7. I love this book too. Great review.

    • Wendy on July 26, 2008 at 10:39

    Small World: I hope to read more of Kingsolver over the next year 🙂

    Jennifer: Thank you!

    • Framed on July 26, 2008 at 19:49

    I read this book a number of years ago and hated it. But recently, I’ve read a couple of her other books and enjoyed them. Maybe it was the timing, but I can’t see myself trying it again. I’ll just remain in the minority.

    • Wendy on July 27, 2008 at 11:14

    Framed: Well – not every book will be loved (or hated) by every reader…which is what makes the world so interesting and diverse!

    • storm on July 30, 2008 at 10:03

    I am just now finishing up The Poisonwood Bible and I am enjoying it immensely. I love how the book weaves the historical facts of the Congo into the fictional world of the Price family. Recently, I have been doing a lot of reading on the Congo — starting with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — and have learned about the sorry role that Belgium, the USA, and other European powers have played in pillaging this country of its natural and human resources.

    • Anna on July 31, 2008 at 11:17

    I just finished this book a few days ago. I couldn’t put it down. I looked up more information about the Congo and learned a lot from this book.

    • Wendy on August 2, 2008 at 16:31

    Storm: Glad to hear you are enjoying this book. I’ve not read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but I’ve heard it is a must read about that region. It is shameful how the powerful countries pillage these remote, third world countries.

    Anna: It is such a terrific read…glad you liked it.

    • Marsha on April 9, 2009 at 18:30

    For the most part I loved this book and couldn’t put it down,but the last third droned on and it might have been better to instead have been a fleshy epilogue . A trilogy might have been another approach. Although I was happy to continue reading well after I felt the book had reached a satisfying conclusion,the end seemed stuck on as if a certain length manuscript had been promised. This last part seemed anti-climatic and a bit too didactic and preachy. The writing throughout however is sublime and sometimes humorous and there are many places where I just stopped and savored an image or idea.The book is a bit skewed in it’s historical perspective and accuracy and it’s when the book gets too political that I wish it’d get back to the characters.By the end of the book,however,I felt no real sympathy for or interest in any of the characters,except perhaps Rachel. This was truly a shame.

    • Wendy on April 11, 2009 at 06:01

    Marsha: Although I don’t agree with your conclusions, I certainly respect your opinion. I know several readers did not like the ending or thought the book went on too long. I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end!

    • Marsha on April 12, 2009 at 20:17

    I actually meant LEAH and not Rachel in my comment .

    • Grayson on October 11, 2009 at 18:40

    Never have i despised a book more.

    • Wendy on October 12, 2009 at 07:20

    Grayson: Well, you are certainly entitled to your opinion 🙂 What was it you so disliked about the book?

    • becca on October 27, 2009 at 16:36

    I absolutely love this book!! I have read it several different times and never get tired of it. Kingsolver’s voice is perceptive and intelligent, and I am especially interested in the different views on Christianity presented throughout the novel (“there are Christians, and then there are Christians”). This one will be with me for a long time…

    • Wendy on October 31, 2009 at 08:25

    Becca: I agree about Kingsolver’s “voice.” She is an amazing writer…so glad you loved this book as I did.

  8. I felt like that too, like I couldn’t give the book justice with my review. When I started reading it I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this book before.

      • Wendy on March 11, 2012 at 14:45

      Thanks for stopping by, Elemillia! I loved your review of this one 🙂

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