by Barbara Kingsolver
There is a sense of impending disaster from the very first page of The Poisonwood Bible: the Reverend Nathan Price takes his wife Orleanna and their four daughters to the Congo to do missionary work in the small village of Kilanga. The family is ill prepared for life in a poor, tropical country and, far worse, Nathan is so absorbed by his need to save the villagers that he becomes completely detached from the realities that his family and the Congolese inhabit.
The story is told from the point of view of Orleanna and her daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, each of whom has a different reaction to their new environment. Their father is not so much a character as a force of nature; his strange rituals and failure to compromise make enemies among the Congolese and sabotage his family's efforts to become part of the village. The book is often darkly humorous; its title comes from a reverse-translation of one of Nathan's attempts to preach in Kikongo: he tells the villagers that Jesus is poisonwood -- a dangerous plant that causes severe skin irritation. After they have spent over a year in the Congo a pivotal event breaks up the family; the rest of the book describes their separate lives and how they come to terms with Africa.
The second half of The Poisonwood Bible is very political: it make much of the fact that the West has historically been aggressively interested in the Congo's natural resources and less than interested in the welfare of its citizens. This may turn off some readers, although the politics don't interfere with the narrative or character development.
I thought this was a great book, and highly recommend it. Kingsolver writes wonderful descriptions of the inhabitants of the Congo and of its plants and animals. It held a special fascination for me since I've heard about the Congo for most of life: my parents lived there for two years not long before I was born. My mother tells me that Kingsolver's facts and situations are accurate and plausible, respectively.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr