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The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver



Posted September 3, 2016 by

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver – 1998

Reviewed by: Ursina        Date: 15 November 2004


This book shows Kingsolver’s best qualities as an author. She has proven her story-telling ability in other books such as “The Bean Trees”, but in this book her true genious shines through. The rich details she relates to the reader of a missionary family in the Congo and the development of character of the four daughters over the course of their lives greatly affects the reader. This is a book recommended to anyone interested in reading good modern literature. (Personally, this is one of my favorite books, I have read as a high school student).

Reviewed by: Bethany      Date: 9 June 2004

Kingsolver comes through with a book that is both delightful to read and yet incredibly moving. This has long been a favourite book of mine.

A family of six moves to the Congo as missionaries, but they are horrifically unprepared for their work and life there. The people of the Congo end up helping them to survive. The story is told from the point of view of the females – and mostly that of the four daughters. This creates some hilarious descriptions, but also insights into characters that otherwise would not be possible.

 Kingsolver’s book moved me to tears at times, especially over what has been done to the continent of Africa. At the same time, it manages to instill a hope for the future, a sense that if humanity works together we can break down barriers and live together as family.


Reviewed by: Stephen A. Haines         Date: 5 April 2004

Guilty without trial

The growing legion of feminist writers are taking us along some disturbing paths. Earlier demands for ‘equality’ have been replaced by the ‘FemiNazis’ approach of judging and condemning men who are denied a defensive voice. Historically, male writers may have overlooked or patronized women, but rarely presented them as arch-villains. Kingsolver assembles four daughters and a wife as Star Chamber prosecutors sitting in judgment of man selling Jesus in the Congolese jungle. Dragged from Eisenhower’s America to an African village, the wife and girls heap scorn on Nathan Price for his failure to comprehend the new setting while they deftly learn to cope. Closing the last page brought disappointment at not learning the motivation for Price’s bizarre behaviour. What torments drove him to such a narrow outlook and single-mindedness? The sliver of evidence about Bataan was grossly inadequate. It’s tempting to contend Kingsolver can’t grasp a male viewpoint.

Fortunately, this book has too many redeeming features to condemn it for feminist bias alone. Kingsolver’s descriptive powers are a seductive force. They lead the reader from the narrow personal issues expressed Orleanna and her daughters to the weltanschauung of America’s imperialism. From the abrupt culture clash opening the story, Kingsolver goes on to grant Orleanna and her four daughters an increasing sense of African realities. Their growing awareness raises the stress between Nathan and his brood. He cannot perceive what they learn – Nathan’s dogmatism has no place on this stage. They find ways to circumvent his rigidity, even his favourite draws away from him over a question of survival. Finally, the loss of one of them triggers the diaspora of the rest. Nathan is abandoned to continue his failed mission.

The real missionary here isn’t Nathan Price, however. It’s Barbara Kingsolver. Using the Price family to portray the spectrum of American views of other cultures, she strives to educate Americans about the follies of their own self-righteousness. Aware that the phrase ‘globalization’ is but flimsy camouflage for “Americanization”, Kingsolver fathoms the resentment of the Kilangan villagers toward Nathan as a small symptom. It is an example of the growing enmity of the remainder of the world to Americans imposing on other cultures. Kingsolver uses the later lives of the daughters as an observation platform to make today’s generation of Americans aware of the legacy of missionarying geopolitics. Nathan comes to a fiery end. Will Americans come to understand why their ships and embassies are bombed? These are but sparks heralding a greater conflagration to come. Given the overwhelming power America exercises, there will be no trial weighing its transgressions. But there will be judgments.

Self-righteousness clouds vision and judgment; Kingsolver’s effort, beautifully crafted as it is, may be lost on those who most need to perceive it. If the general tone of the reviews here is representative, her powers of description may have overwhelmed the message. Pity, it’s a message that needs to be heard clearly. Recent political events suggest too few are listening.

Reviewed by: Tony Thomas         Date: 12 May 2002

As I wrote elsewhere, I have never been able to finish this book because like Barbara’s other work the world she creates is so fixed around providing the points that she wants to make, and her character’s nature is so predetermined to end up exactly where they end up, that they aren’t very interesting to me, particularly as a fiction writer. I have never felt the urge to finish this book. In fact for a time I kept it at my bedside because it was very easy to fall asleep reading it.

I find it very hard to believe that the lack of racial attitude on the part of the family, for a family of that nature and stripe coming from Georgia during those years. Moreover, the stupidity–the stock Ugly American dumb male–of the father in the story is not mitigated by anything. All of the characters are what we would call thin characters.

 If we look at Naipaul’s Tulsi’s we understand a very visceral humanity, an energy, and desire that they have that is missing in her characters.

Barbara’s first writing, particularly the stories, were quite good, but as she got into her larger works, she tends to smooth out reality to make things fit into her message rather than using her novels as a method to explore that reality. I gave her the benefit of the doubt for a while because I knew her and admire her personally, but when I read Pigs in Heaven.

Her writing is very good. I don’t deny it. Most of her sentiments and feelings I share. I also think it is great that her voice on non literary matters has been heard because she is a good person with good things to say. However, I would love it if she approaches the novel like Naipaul or Joyce Oates or Toni Morrison as a journey into what we don’t know about humanity.


Reviewed by: Linda          Date: 05-May-2002

This book follows a family of 6 (father, mother and 4 daughters) into the heart of Congo, where the father will work as a Baptist missionary about 40 years ago. The mother obediently follows her husband and so do the 4 girls, ranging in age from small child to teenager. Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the females, which makes the book very diverse and enjoyable, because the same incident can be seen from different angles.

We read about the time the family spent in Congo, but also what becomes of the females of the family in later years. The tone is very well set: the description of the stifling heat in Congo and the stifling power of the father almost makes you feel it.

All goes well that ends well, but things are not going well from the beginning, mainly because the father refuses to accept that different cultures do things differently for very good reasons. So the seeds drown in the garden, the people refuse to come to the church and even the birthday cake is not what it is supposed to be. The father’s power is slowly but surely eroded by the events that take place and leave their mark on the rest of his family.

The six characters are all completely different. The unbending father tries to convince the villagers that Jesus is love, pronouncing it in such a way that it comes out as “Jesus is poisonwood”, a local plant that can give you an immensely unpleasant rash. The eldest daughter is stupid and superficial (leading to hilarious misuse of difficult words), and even though she stays in Africa for the rest of her live, she always remains an outsider. The tomboy middle girl for a while really tries to please her father until she falls thoroughly in love with the continent and especially with one of its inhabitants. Through her accounts we are able to follow the sad history of Congo. Her bright but handicapped twin sister returns to the USA, but somehow Africa has made a lasting impression, which influences the choice of her career. And as for the youngest daughter: read for yourself…

ReadLit Team


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