People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

Book 2 of 12

This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

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51 thoughts on “People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

      • FF, This book is in my top five favourites of all time. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I think it’s an extraordinary achievement. I also loved that Kingsolver says at the beginning, or maybe a note at the end, but this was the book she always intended to write when she said out to be an author, but needed the time and experience to do it justice. I took great heart from this.

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        • I can see why you enjoyed it as a writer as well as a reader – it’s so skilfully written, with all those voices gradually growing up. I missed that comment from her, but I think it’s very wise. I feel there’s a push these days for authors to be brilliant from day one, whereas of course they need to learn their trade like every other craftsperson. Not sure new authors are given the space and time to do that in today’s publishing world, though…

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  1. I’m really glad you enjoyed this one, FictionFan! So often, books with an agenda can be preachy, and that pulls me right out of the story. It’s good to hear you didn’t think that happened with this one. You make an interesting point, too, about the different voices. It can be hard to create distinct voices for characters who are closely related, like the sisters. That takes real skill!

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    • I could see why some people find this one too preachy, but I thought she got quite a good balance, and the girls’ voices and stories were interesting enough to hide a bit of preaching. I was very impressed at how she managed to age each girl separately and yet keep the voices sounding consistent with their younger selves – very well done!

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  2. It sounds as though this was one of our better choices, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve heard Kingsolver is perhaps not the most subtle writer when it comes to social criticism, but the individual voices and perspectives sound well enough drawn to still make it work as a story. I’ll bump this up my own list and get to it soon.

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    • Yes, you’re all getting better at this – the last couple have been great! 😉 The reviews for her more recent books suggest she’s let the preaching take over from the storytelling, but in this earlier one I felt she got a good balance. And even though poor Adah irritated me I grew to care about all of the girls, even silly little Rachel! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

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  3. This book ended a long dry period, some years ago, of my not reading. I found her novel so good that I wanted to read again and have never stopped since. I should mention that few stories have lived up to this one, including other Kingsover novels.

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    • There’s nothing quite like finding a book that we can wholeheartedly love, is there? But I agree – while there are lots of good books out there, the really excellent ones are rare. Have you read William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach? It was in my mind while I was reading this because it’s also set in the Congo, though it’s a very different story. It’s another that I thought was excellent.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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  4. I glad this one was such a great success for you. I’ve heard others praise it, as well. However… despite enjoying some of her earliest work, I was so turned off by Unsheltered and its “bashing over the head” agenda that I don’t know if I can try another one of hers any time soon.

    On a side note…. I recently read A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher. Are you familiar with it? I’d be curious to get your opinion of it.

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    • Hmm… I looked at the Goodreads review for Unsheltered and it seems you’re not alone! Preachy books usually drive me crazy, but I think it was the girls’ voices in this one that made it work so well – I really grew to care about what happened to them all, and believed in their stories. It’s the only book of hers I’ve read and I’d like to read more, so I’ll take note of your comment and seek out her earlier ones!

      No, I haven’t even heard of it… hold on while I look it up……. Oh, I don’t know if I could read it – I have a real thing about animal stories. I can read about serial killers and child abductions, but a stolen dog? That would upset me… 😭 What did you think of it?

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  5. It’s so long since I read this (back in the ’90s) but I remember finding it somewhat clunky, too many narrative voices for me, probably because I was accustomed to the more straightforward style of Kingsolver’s earlier novels. Glad it hit the spot for you!

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    • This is the first of hers that I’ve read so I didn’t have any expectations of her style which may have helped. I thought at first that all the voices would annoy me but I found I began to care them about them all as individuals after a bit, especially when they got a little older. I’m looking forward to trying some of her other stuff!

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  6. I’m so glad you liked this because I really love it, I remember feeling very satisfied by the endings which made me realise that that doesn’t happen often!

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    • I found I liked each of them more and more as they went through their lives, and like you I thought the endings for each suited the characters she’d built for them, which doesn’t always happen! Even silly Rachel won my heart in the end… 😀

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  7. I haven’t read this one, but your review certainly makes it sound interesting. It takes some skill to develop unique voices for that many characters — and I’m glad you refrained from spoiling things by hinting which daughter got left there! How’s Porpy adjusting to his hibernation??

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    • I’ve read so many books with multiple narrators who all sound the same, so it was a real pleasure that these girls all had unique voices, and I was very impressed at how well she aged them as the book went on. Ha, he’s still twitching a bit – nightmares, probably, poor thing! 😉

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  8. I read this book so very many years ago. But it left an impression. And I have to say that while I recall very few of the actual details, the imprint remains. And I guess that’s a sign of a good book. I have a friend (Mindy Uhrlaub) whose book about Congo, Unnatural Resources, (a more contemporary fictional account based on her experience there in taking testimony for Human Rights Watch), would be a good pairing or extension to The Poisonwood Bible to show what contemporary life is like for women in Congo.

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    • Looks interesting, if harrowing! I’m ashamed to say I don’t know much about the Congo’s recent history – what is it they call it? Compassion fatigue? I eventually reached a point where it all seemed so hopeless in Africa that I tuned it out. Although lots of African countries seem to be finally doing much better at last, and hopefully they’ll drag the other ones along in their wake.

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    • Preachy novels usually annoy me hugely, but I didn’t mind it so much in this one for some reason – I think because I was so impressed at her development of the different voices and personalities. It’s the only book of hers I’ve read so far, and I’d like to read more, although reviews seem to suggest her later books are even preachier! I’ll probably go for one of her earlier ones… 😀

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  9. I read this book a long time ago and remember being quite caught up in the world and characters Kingsolver developed. I’m glad you enjoyed it too – it does seem to be a book that doesn’t go so well with some people and that others love.

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    • Yes, the preachiness of it seems to irritate a lot of people and often it would me too, but I found the way she handled all the different voices and stories kept me feeling I was reading about ‘real’ people rather than listening to a lecture on the evils of modern colonialism. Agreeing with her for the most part definitely helped too! I’d like to read more of her stuff, although reviews suggested some of them lose sight of the story amid the preaching…

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  10. Oh I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, it’s really made me adamant that I need to read it too! The premise sounds interesting, and I can already tell how funny the oldest daughter is-she sounds hilarious 🙂

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    • I wasn’t sure about Rachel at first but she’s developed so well as she goes through her life – I grew very find of her by the end! And she never loses that habit of getting words wrong… 😀 I suspect you’ll like this one if you manage to fit it in…

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  11. I’ve always been curious about Kingsolver’s work but avoided this novel (and haven’t read any others yet), because I’ve got a bit tired of the “all missionaries were terrible, awful people” trope in literary fiction. Obviously lots of appalling things (and well-intended but misguided things) were done by missionaries during the colonial period, but the way authors write about it sometimes lacks nuance. This sounds like a much more interesting look at the issue through the voices of the different family members – I may have misjudged it and will have to give it a try!

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    • I feel much like that about anti-colonial fiction in general, at least the stuff that’s designed to make us feel guilty about things that happened before we were born. I think this worked for me partly because it’s more about modern economic colonialism, so still relevant, but mainly just because I enjoyed the voices and stories of the daughters. Preachy books don’t usually work for me, so she must have done it really well!

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  12. I am glad you reviewed this. I have been interested in it since it was part of a Six Degrees chain, so it is good to know that you enjoyed it so much.

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    • I wasn’t at all sure I would since I usually don’t get along with books that are a bit preachy, but the writing and voices are so good, and the sisters’ stories are all interesting. Definitely worth considering!

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  13. So glad you loved this – it’s one of her best surely. I also especially loved Prodigal Summer and her earlier works – Animal Dreams, Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven. She’s written some nature writing that’s exquisite too. I did not love The Lacuna – that’s my least favorite of hers.

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    • It’s my first Kingsolver so thanks for those recommendations – they’ll help me decide which to try next. I get the impression from various reviews that her later stuff maybe doesn’t get the balance quite right – too much preaching, whereas in this one the message was worked very skilfully into the various stories.

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  14. This is my least favourite of her novels (I haven’t read the Kahlo one) but still excellent; we both read it when we were bereft of Kingsolvers, waiting for the newest one to come out. Really interesting and, as you say, I don’t mind her slight preachiness because I do tend to agree with her!

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    • Interesting! Most people have said this one’s her best. Obviously I’m just going to have to read them all and find out for myself… 😉 Yes, so long as I agree with it and it comes with an interesting story then I can put up with a bit of preachiness. Unfortunately some authors end up reading like a political pamphlet…

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  15. ‘It made me laugh and cry and care and think’ – Yes, that is exactly good fiction should do! So glad you enjoyed this modern classic. I’d never thought about reading this before, but after hearing your thoughts sounds like I should definitely consider it. 😃

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    • I think you might enjoy it – each of the daughters has her own interesting story to tell which stops it from becoming too much of a lecture about the evils of colonialism. Great writing! 😀

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  16. Preachiness aside, I don’t know why Kingsolver got someone else to finish her novel lol I am joking, of course, but it seems so to me! It is like the two parts are totally different and I wish she stayed in Africa and not tried to “sort out” each of the girls’ destinies in such an off-hand manner.

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    • Hahaha, I know exactly what you mean! When that long end section began I was wondering why she hadn’t just finished it at the end of their childhood, but then I got sucked in by their stories anyway and ended up enjoying that section too.

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