[Book Review] The Poisonwood Bible

Yousif Al-Amin, 129 TCCS

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Title: The Poisonwood Bible

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Published: Harper (1998)

Synopsis: In 1959, an overzealous Baptist minister named Nathan Price decides to move his wife and four daughters to a desolate, isolated part of the Congo, intent on rescuing the unenlightened villagers of Kilanga from their polygamous, polytheistic lifestyle. The Poisonwood Bible is narrated by the five female members of the Price family, each with a (very) different personality, ranging from the quiet, passive mother, Orleanna Price, to fifteen-year-old beauty queen Rachel Price, to Leah and Adah, fourteen-year-old twins who share nothing in common besides a birthday. Last but certainly not least is five-year-old Ruth May, the most adventurous of the Price family.

The Prices go through extraordinary efforts to prepare for their trip, bringing everything they can pack in their bags (and wear on their bodies) across the Atlantic Ocean to the Congo. Needless to say, most of what they decide to bring ends up being of no use to the Prices. Even the steadfast faith that led this righteous family to the Congo begins to waver early on. Nathan Price enters his missionary work with a superiority complex and subsequently refuses to learn from the local villagers in Kilanga, leading to frustration on all sides.

Although Nathan Price refuses to learn from the locals, his daughters (and wife) are less reluctant and eventually begin to develop relationships within their community. The youngest, Ruth May, has no trouble befriending the local children, while Leah finds companionship in a local teacher. Nathan Price remains stubborn throughout his life, but the Price women ultimately learn to understand the Congolese term muntu, the concept of unity, of life being intertwined and connected.

Personal Connections and Reflections: 

On the surface, it’s really easy to find connections between my life, my Peace Corps service, and The Poisonwood Bible. The Price family’s decision to embark on a mission trip to the Congo and a Peace Corps Volunteer’s decision to commit 2 years to serve in another country stem from the same feeling of wanting to help others, to share what we can with another culture and community. I couldn’t help but laugh while reading about the Prices wearing multiple outfits and stuffing “important” items in between layers of clothing in order to maximize their packing since we, as PCVs, have all gone through the same packing nightmares. I relished in Orleanna Price discovering that the cake mix she had brought to the Congo went bad – it made me feel less foolish for some of my packing decisions (I still don’t know why I brought wool socks to Thailand).

One of my favorite moments in The Poisonwood Bible is when Nathan and Leah Price plant a “demonstration garden” (complete with seeds all the way from America!) in hopes of teaching everyone in the village how to maintain their own sustainable garden. Nathan refuses to take heed of Mama Tataba’s advice to plant the seeds in mounds rather than in flat rows and is ultimately disappointed to discover that the flat garden he planted couldn’t withstand the Congolese weather. This is such a real example of what I’m sure happens all too frequently with service organizations: foreigners thinking they know best and refusing to take advice from the locals. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that the locals usually know what they’re doing better than we do as PCVs. Reading this passage reminded me to keep that in mind for future community projects.

Although this novel is set on a different continent, in a different time period, and is not based on a true story (though Barbara Kingsolver did enough research to ensure that the events probably did happen), this is a story that would benefit anyone working in community service or international development. The Prices make many, many mistakes during their missionary work in the Congo and ultimately pay a steep price for their deliberate disregard towards local culture, customs, and practices. The Poisonwood Bible allows the reader to learn from those mistakes without necessarily having to make them him or herself.


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