Review: The Poisonwood Bible


Title: The Poisonwood Bible

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by Holly

I will admit that I read The Poisonwood Bible (for a second time) with a tinge of reluctance. Oh, not because I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but because I had just gotten three books upon request from the library, including Froi of the Exiles, but I timed things poorly and was headed out of town before I could realistically finish any of my library books, so I chose to start something I had on my Kindle and not try to pack 600 pages of Froi in my suitcase.

And that, my friends, may be the most entitled, overinflated “problem” I have ever described – a fact that is not without irony, considering the circumstances of The Poisonwood Bible.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I had read this book years ago, and I knew I liked it. And then I read some others by Barbara Kingsolver, with mixed results (including The Bean Trees – loved! Prodigal Summer – not particularly memorable.) and somewhere in there I lost track of exactly what made The Poisonwood Bible so special. It jumped near the top of my list again recently, after I finished The Lady. Like I wrote in my review, my primary beef with that book (which I otherwise enjoyed) was that the parents, including Baptist preacher Dad, went to Africa as missionaries leaving their 16 year-old daughter at home. And, as I don’t know much about Baptist missionaries, specifically Baptist missionaries from the South in the late 1950s, I can’t fathom whether or not that is realistic. In The Lady, the Baptist parents from Georgia in 1956 leave their teenage daughter at home, which allows her story to unfold. In The Poisonwood Bible, the Baptist parents from Georgia in 1959 bring their teenage daughters along, 15 year-old Rachel and 14 year-old twins Leah and Adah, plus 5-year old Ruth May.

The Poisonwood Bible is the story that comes of that decision, told through the eyes of the daughters, with reflections from their mother in present day. I don’t love changing point-of-views as an end in themselves, but this book is by far my favorite example of a multiple POV story (at least, favorite that I can think of right now). The narrators are all very different – Leah is eager and earnest, Adah is dark and exceedingly frustrated to read as her chapters are doused in backwards sentences, Rachel is every bit a teenager and longing for an out – of her family and of the jungle, and Ruth May is just plain fun. At first, Leah seems the most reliable narrator of all the girls, though I’m not 100% sure what I think by the end.

While The Poisonwood Bible is not difficult reading, at times, it is difficult to read. The story is the story of the Price family is set against the story of the Congo – from Belgian colonialism to American neo-colonialism. It is hard to read about some of the choices that the Prices make, but it is harder to read about the country’s political and economic history.

But you should read it.

Parting words: “It is a dangerous thing, I now understand, to make mistakes with nommo in the Congo. If you assign the wrong names to things, you could make a chicken speak like a man. Make a machete rise up and dance.”

RATING: 5 Stars