The first and most obvious observations about The Poisonwood Bible relate to its literal movement from one place to another. The time span of the novel, from 1959 to around 1994, is significant. Throughout the novel, the confused and often bloody history of the Congo, later called Zaire, is followed, paralleling the experiences of the Price family members, especially those of Leah. Africa is the central subject, the setting, and, essentially, a character in the plot. The members of the Price family go to Africa on what is intended to be a twelve-month mission, are caught there by the coming of independence and ensuing political and military chaos, and find their lives totally changed by their African experience. Four of them remain in Africa, and only two return permanently to the United States. Africa, in various ways, overcomes them, destroys the family they had been, and changes them all in ways they never could have foreseen.
The novel opens from Sanderling Island, Georgia, as Orleanna Price, mother of the family, meditates retrospectively on her family’s African past, long after her African experiences, and seeks to put them into some kind of perspective. Then the novel shifts to the village of Kilanga in the Congo, the place upon which the Reverend Nathan Price seeks to impose his will and his particular evangelical Baptist version of Christianity. This is also the place which defeats him and destroys his family, and it is the principal setting of the next several sections, which contain the novel’s main action. Following these places, as the novel moves more rapidly toward the present and the characters move from place to place, the settings are more varied but still mostly African. Most notable among the African places outside of Kilanga are Johannesburg, Kinshasa, a convent, and a hotel.
The land and the people of what used to be called the “dark continent” are commanding presences in the novel, presented throughout the wanderings of the members of the Price family and, more powerfully, from their initial contacts with Africa. The opening passage, in which Orleanna describes a picnic on the river, sets a tone. Orleanna evokes the jungle, an environment completely foreign to her family, one which is at the same time very beautiful and threatening. From this opening, which is at once broad in its introduction of the land and specific in its prelude to the family’s story, the novel moves to a concentration on the specific with the Price daughters’ stories told in their own words. The family’s preparations for Africa have been ludicrous. They could bring only a small amount of luggage, and their preparations for housekeeping in a jungle village forced them to choose necessities, some of which turn out to be totally inappropriate. Not surprisingly the family members respond to their new surroundings, both land and people, in a variety of ways. The first response to their new place is bewilderment and misunderstanding.
From the beginning they misunderstand the land. Convinced that the soil which bears the lush jungle will respond to American agricultural methods, they attempt to plant a garden with familiar plants and tend it in their accustomed ways. A village woman scornfully tells them that their method will not work, but the Reverend Price persists, and the result is failure. To the Reverend Price, the nearby river is important for providing the water in which he will baptize all the converts which he expects to make. To the villagers, the river is a place of danger, and they cannot understand his compulsion to dip them in the river, the home of crocodiles and death. Their total alienness from each other makes the goal of Christianizing the village a lost cause.
Africa is also an oppressed world, a land which has had its rich mineral resources ripped from it and taken far away to benefit white Europeans. It is home to a people who have been brutally forced to destroy their resources while not even gaining good roads or other forms of modernization. Kingsolver skillfully conveys information about the history of the Congo’s colonial past and the ruthless way in which its people were treated, including such inhumane punishments as the amputation of limbs for relatively minor infractions. That experience, already in the past as the novel gets under way, is vividly remembered by the people and explains their distrust of white faces. That they continue to have good reasons to hate outsiders with European origins is amply dramatized by the narrative. Eeben Axelroot, a pilot who ferries supplies into the jungles, and robs Africans and white people indiscriminately, serves as one example of the continuing exploitation of Africa by the West.
The land destroys Nathan’s hopes, as the people remain stubbornly faithful to their history, culture, and ancestral roots. Nathan’s garden fails, and his school is only partly successful as the students take from it only what they want, not what he wants to give them. Anatole Ngemba his translator, sees to it that the people know what Nathan is saying and what he is trying to achieve with them, so that they may decide for themselves if anything he brings is worth having. Nathan’s struggle against the village’s spiritual leader ends in total defeat and the death of a daughter. The Africans even turn the West’s own methods against it. The notion of voting is foreign to the Africans, who are accustomed to respecting those with the experience of age and arriving at consensus.
This work offers a view of the missionary enterprise. A missionary girl in the Belgian Congo recollects how “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.” The overtly religious content of such missions is minimal—one girl “prayed the dumb prayers of our childhood: ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’… I could not remotely believe any Shepherd was leading me through this dreadful valley, but the familiar words stuffed my mouth like cotton” (13). Like the rest of her family, she is in Africa solely to humor her fanatical preacher father. Africa is a strong and ambiguous force. Kingsolver’s depiction is complicated – morally as well as in regard to its natural power.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998.