Friday, March 22, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Re-read of The Poisonwood Bible 

I first read this novel when it was put on Oprah's Book Club list in 2000. This is a novel that I have mulled over and considered for over 12 years. So, when I had the opportunity to choose a new contemporary novel for my AP Literature class this year, I decided The Poisonwood Bible would be perfect to share with my students, and it would give me an opportunity to re-visit the work. 

The title draws you in because of the juxtaposition of the words poison and bible. Most would identify death, illness, pain, disease with the word poison, but the connotations for the word bible may not be so universal. Because I live on the buckle of the bible belt, the majority of my students identify truth, life, heaven, law/rules, the way, church, goodness, etc with the word bible. Putting two words from opposite ends of the spectrum in the title engenders questions and predictions. Why would the bible be poison? This question is like a splinter in your hand that has broken off and can't be pulled with tweezers, you just have to wait for it to work itself out.

Second, a quick check of the table of contents indicates that, like the bible, this novel is divided into books called Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children, and The Eyes in the Trees. Immediately, the extended allusion to the bible suggested in the title is furthered. In my area of the United States, not many people are familiar with the Apocrypha, so a little research reveals this novel will allude to more than the King James Version of the bible. Additionally, each book of The Poisonwood Bible has a sub-title which alludes to the novel, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brian. 

A further preview of the novel reveals that each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter is narrated by a female member of the Price family. The daughters of Nathan and Orleanna Price, Leah, Ada, Rachel, and Ruth, are allusions to women in the bible as well.

This elaborate, extended allusion sets the stage for the journey the Price family takes as they move from Georgia to the Belgium Congo in the early 1960's to be missionaries. The conflicts the family encounter are used as a microcosm to understand the macrocosm of the conflicts the Congo has encountered in its many, devastating dealings with the 'civilized' world.
Patrice Lumumba

Jospeh Mobutu
 If you aren't already familiar with these topics, I suggest a bit of quick research on the history of the Congo, imperialism, Patrice Lumumba, and Joseph Mobutu before reading this novel.

On this read through of The Poisonwood Bible, I tried to identify why the novel stuck with me for 12 years, and I decided much of my love for this novel is because of the character development. The Price family could be any number of families I grew up with. I have met the father, Nathan Price, and wondered at his extreme devotion and his thoughtless arrogance. I love Ada's character because of her different view of the world. She quotes Emily Dickinson, develops her own palindromic language, and reads backwards. Finally, I identify with Leah's internal conflicts.

The thoroughly developed, dynamic characters are Kingsolver's vehicle to address weightier issues. Looking at my list of ontological questions, The Poisonwood Bible offers enough meat to wrestle with all of them. There are no easy answers to be found here. This novel allows for meta-cognition and, on the flip side, it begs the reader to analyze world politics and issues. It is universal and it is timely.

Ontological Questions:

1.  What is the meaning of life?
2.  How should I live?
3.  How can I accept the idea that someday my life will end?
4.  What does it mean to be a good person?
5.  What is truth?
6.  Am I brave or a coward?  Does courage matter?
7.  Do the rewards of life balance or outweigh its pain?
8.  How should people treat each other?
9.  How can man live in the ugliness of the modern world without despair?
10.  Why do evil and suffering exist?
11.  How can we tell the false from the genuine?
12.  Does my existence matter?  Do I dare to disturb the universe?


  1. Great thoughts on this fabulous novel. It's been years since I've read it, but it left a definite impression -- even if many of the details are a bit fuzzy now.

    Growing up in the heart of Mormondom, I recognized many of the characters as well. Now I want to reread this. :)

  2. It's def an eye opened of a book. I learned a lot about an era of history I was pretty ignorant on before. Cool post:)