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Product Details

  • Series: Oprah's Book Club
  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (February 2, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060175400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0739412565
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,987 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, June 2000: As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortune across a span of more than 30 years.

The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price's wife and daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate--teenage Rachel's tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their "French congregations"; Nathan's refusal to take his family home is a "tapestry of justice"). More problematic is Kingsolver's tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.

Despite these weaknesses, Kingsolver's fully realized, three-dimensional characters make The Poisonwood Bible compelling, especially in the first half, when Nathan Price is still at the center of the action. And in her treatment of Africa and the Africans she is at her best, exhibiting the acute perception, moral engagement, and lyrical prose that have made her previous novels so successful. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

In this risky but resoundingly successful novel, Kingsolver leaves the Southwest, the setting of most of her work (The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams) and follows an evangelical Baptist minister's family to the Congo in the late 1950s, entwining their fate with that of the country during three turbulent decades. Nathan Price's determination to convert the natives of the Congo to Christianity is, we gradually discover, both foolhardy and dangerous, unsanctioned by the church administration and doomed from the start by Nathan's self-righteousness. Fanatic and sanctimonious, Nathan is a domestic monster, too, a physically and emotionally abusive, misogynistic husband and father. He refuses to understand how his obsession with river baptism affronts the traditions of the villagers of Kalinga, and his stubborn concept of religious rectitude brings misery and destruction to all. Cleverly, Kingsolver never brings us inside Nathan's head but instead unfolds the tragic story of the Price family through the alternating points of view of Orleanna Price and her four daughters. Cast with her young children into primitive conditions but trained to be obedient to her husband, Orleanna is powerless to mitigate their situation. Meanwhile, each of the four Price daughters reveals herself through first-person narration, and their rich and clearly differentiated self-portraits are small triumphs. Rachel, the eldest, is a self-absorbed teenager who will never outgrow her selfish view of the world or her tendency to commit hilarious malapropisms. Twins Leah and Adah are gifted intellectually but are physically and emotionally separated by Adah's birth injury, which has rendered her hemiplagic. Leah adores her father; Adah, who does not speak, is a shrewd observer of his monumental ego. The musings of five- year-old Ruth May reflect a child's humorous misunderstanding of the exotic world to which she has been transported. By revealing the story through the female victims of Reverend Price's hubris, Kingsolver also charts their maturation as they confront or evade moral and existential issues and, at great cost, accrue wisdom in the crucible of an alien land. It is through their eyes that we come to experience the life of the villagers in an isolated community and the particular ways in which American and African cultures collide. As the girls become acquainted with the villagers, especially the young teacher Anatole, they begin to understand the political situation in the Congo: the brutality of Belgian rule, the nascent nationalism briefly fulfilled in the election of the short-lived Patrice Lumumba government, and the secret involvement of the Eisenhower administration in Lumumba's assassination and the installation of the villainous dictator Mobutu. In the end, Kingsolver delivers a compelling family saga, a sobering picture of the horrors of fanatic fundamentalism and an insightful view of an exploited country crushed by the heel of colonialism and then ruthlessly manipulated by a bastion of democracy. The book is also a marvelous mix of trenchant character portrayal, unflagging narrative thrust and authoritative background detail. The disastrous outcome of the forceful imposition of Christian theology on indigenous natural faith gives the novel its pervasive irony; but humor is pervasive, too, artfully integrated into the children's misapprehensions of their world; and suspense rises inexorably as the Price family's peril and that of the newly independent country of Zaire intersect. Kingsolver moves into new moral terrain in this powerful, convincing and emotionally resonant novel. Agent, Frances Goldin; BOMC selection; major ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
5 star
1,151
4 star
439
3 star
185
2 star
108
1 star
104
See all 1,987 customer reviews
This is a story of individual and family love.
Norman Dale
I felt as if I really got to know them and wanted to know what happened to them, which is why I'm glad the book didn't end when they left the Congo.
katie reichart
The story is amazing, and the writing style is beautiful.
luvto read

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

291 of 301 people found the following review helpful By Polly L. Mccall on August 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read Kingsolver's earlier "Pigs in Heaven" and "Bean Trees." I picked up "The Poisonwood Bible" on impluse to read while on vacation. Once I started reading it, I found it hard to put down.
I have never had much interest in African history, but this book made me want to find out more. Her characters, as in her earlier books, are very well realized and fascinating. The story begins with the arrival in the Belgian Congo of Nathan Price, fire and brimstone Baptist preacher, and his reluctant family. The family's story is told by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and their five daughters - shallow teen-age Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and five-year-old Ruth May. The voices of the characters are authentic and believable.
Other reviewers are correct in their assessment that this is, in a sense, two books. The first is about Nathan's clumsy and ill-advised attempts to fit Africa to his fundamentalist beliefs, and the family's attempts to fit their lives to Africa. The second is about the way a family tragedy marks its survivors and the different ways events in Africa mark them as well. I don't agree that Kingsolver should have "stopped writing" at the end of the first part.
I was absolutely spellbound by the way the voices changed and the way they stayed the same from the first to the last of the book. One believes in the characters, they change and grow as the book progresses. Other reviewers found Rachel grating, but I think that was the point. Her shallowness brought home the points that Kingsolver was making even more effectively than the earnest preaching by Leah. I got the sense that in her own way, Rachel understood the events perfectly well, but that she did not care.
I felt very complete when I finished the book. It was a satisfying experience.
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200 of 213 people found the following review helpful By Patricia A. Powell on July 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
At the time of this writing, there are 488 customer reviews posted. It seems you either love this book or hate it. I loved this book.
It is the story of a family that goes to the Belgian Congo to perform Christian missionary work in the 1950's. It is told in the first person by the wife of the minister, and his daugthers. Its point of view would of course be feminine, but not necessarily feminist.
While some reviewers seem personally offended at the author's treatment of the father, Nathan, I find him sympathetic. And, without him, there is no story. Nathan's soul is tortured. Through a quirck of fate, he misses a battle of WWII where his entire unit is lost. He never deals with it and he is changed forever. When he met his wife at a Christian revival meeting, he was kind and committed to Chirst. When he returns home from the service, we find that he has become a rigid, self righteous bible thumping preacher. He despises wife for his own perceived sin... he physically desires her. He barely tolerates his daugthers, as he takes the entire family to the Belgian Congo to pursue what he believes is his calling from God. The hierarchy of his own church does not think that he is suited for missionary work, and will not send him, but he manages to go anyway. The family is ill prepared for the Congo and this predictably has tragic consequences.
Once in the Congo Nathan antagonizes the few western missionaries he has contact with. And, in the end he fails in his effort to save the souls of the natives. There is racism in the 1950's attitudes toward the villagers... their souls need to be saved, but their lives are relatively unimportant. They can pray together, but not eat at the same table.
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274 of 301 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Calitri on July 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
Barbara Kingsolver is finally receiving the attention she deserves for her impressive novel The Poisonwood Bible. I read this book last year because I'd just returned from spending five weeks in East Africa and missed the people and the country.
This novel tells the engrossing story of quirky, feverish Baptist preacher Nathan Price who hauls his family off on a mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The story's narration is shared by his wife Orleanna and their four daughters, ages 5 - 15, who seem much too tender and naive to survive the trials of harsh conditions, poor housing, language barriers, cultural clashes, and natural antagonists. What results is an absorbing story set against the backdrop of political and religious upheaval.
Kingsolver's writing in this book proves what can happen when a writer continues to pursue her craft. The work is impressively mature compared to earlier cute novels like The Bean Trees and shows her flare and passion and growth as a writer. The narrative voices are distinct and engaging except for 15 year old Rachel's whose heartsickness for American pop culture is somewhat irritating because of the stretches the writer makes to show Rachel's shallow nature. For example, at first Rachel's malaprops are entertaining, but read against the seriousness of several occurences, the writing sounds forced. Nevertheless, Kingsolver's narrators are living voices most readers will very much enjoy.
I loved this book in spite of its flaws--the characterization of Rachel, the plausibility of some of the Congolese people's actions, and Kingsolver's political analysis/overview. The last fifth of the book is laborious as the writer strives to incorporate Congolese political history, and such writing is not where Kingsolver's strengths are.
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