Read With Us Selection
Winter 2024

The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

“I can’t remember who it was that said holding a book in your hand was like holding magic. They were right and for me, this is so true for Barbara Kingsolver’s tour-de-force The Poisonwood Bible. I read it first in 1998 and I’ve read it almost a dozen times since.

It tells the story of a missionary family who move from the USA to the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. I loved the words and how it was written, as the story is narrated in turns by the five women of the family, the long-suffering wife of the determined missionary and his four daughters. It is like watching slow alchemy to read these words and see how the views of the family members change, so-called savages turning into full human beings with a complex and sophisticated culture in front of our eyes and through their words.”

— Jackie Gorman, in The Irish Times, November 24, 2014

Brief Synopsis

(from BookBrowse)

Set in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, The Poisonwood Bible takes its place alongside the classic works of post-colonial literature, establishing Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it–from garden seeds to Scripture–is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband’s part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters–the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father’s intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

Dancing between the dark comedy of human failings and the breathtaking possibilities of human hope, The Poisonwood Bible possesses all that has distinguished Barbara Kingsolver’s previous work, and extends this beloved writer’s vision to an entirely new level. Taking its place alongside the classic works of post colonial literature, this ambitious novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

Information About the Author

Photo by Evan Kafka

(From Barbara Kingsolver’s website)

Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, and has worked as a freelance writer and author since 1985. At various times in her adult life she has lived in England, France, and the Canary Islands, and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America. She spent two decades in Tucson, Arizona, before moving to southwestern Virginia where she currently resides.

Her books, in order of publication, are: The Bean Trees (1988), Homeland (1989), Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (1989), Animal Dreams (1990), Another America (1992), Pigs in Heaven (1993), High Tide in Tucson (1995), The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Prodigal Summer (2000), Small Wonder (2002), Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands, with photographer Annie Griffiths Belt (2002), Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life(2007), The Lacuna (2009), Flight Behavior (2012), Unsheltered (2018), How To Fly (In 10,000 Easy Lessons)(2020), and Demon Copperhead (2022). She served as editor for Best American Short Stories 2001. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have been adopted into the core literature curriculum in high schools and colleges throughout the nation. She has contributed to more than fifty literary anthologies, and her reviews and articles have appeared in most major U.S. newspapers and magazines. Click here to view complete bibliography.

Demon Copperhead was named an Oprah Book Club selection immediately upon publication, and in 2023 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Demon Copperhead also received Britain’s prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize), making Kingsolver the first author in the history of the prize to receive the award twice. Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts. Critical acclaim for her books includes multiple awards from the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, among many others. The Poisonwood Bible was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Orange Prize, and won the national book award of South Africa, before being named an Oprah Book Club selection. Animal, Vegetable, Miraclewon numerous prizes including the James Beard award. The Lacuna won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010. In 2011, Kingsolver was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, the nation’s largest prize for an unpublished first novel, which since 1998 has helped to establish the careers of more than a half dozen new literary voices. Through a recent agreement, the prize has now become the PEN / Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

She has two daughters, Camille (born in 1987) and Lily (1996). Her husband, Steven Hopp, teaches environmental studies. Since June 2004, Barbara and her family have lived on a farm in southern Appalachia, where they raise an extensive vegetable garden and Icelandic sheep. Barbara believes her best work is accomplished through writing and being an active citizen of her own community. She is grateful for the good will and support of her readers.

For a complete list of Barbara Kingsolver’s published works, see the Bibliography section of this website. Each of her books is described in more detail in Books, and critical acclaim is listed in Honors and Awards. For a more complete biography, see Barbara Reveals Herself.

Book Reviews

From The New York Times (Verlyn Klinkenborg, October 18, 1998) – Going Native (this is a gift link, so should be accessible to all readers)

From The New York Times (from archives)‘The Poisonwood Bible’: A Family a Heart of Darkness

From The Irish Times (Jackie Gorman, November 24, 2014) – Why I Love: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

From The Guardian (John Mullan, May 3, 2013)- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Author Interviews

From LibraryThingAuthor Interview with Barbara Kingsolver in 2008 for a book group discussion of The Poisonwood Bible; this print-based interview is awkward to read, but interesting.


Supplemental Resources

Thirteen Things You Probably Don’t Know About The Poisonwood Bible – fun “factoids” (from Mental Floss)

Map of The Democratic Republic of The Congo and surrounding countries (from Brittanica)

History and Timelines

Democratic Republic of The Congo – Timeline of major events from the BBC

History of the Democratic Republic of The Congo (brief history and timeline) from War Child

Democratic Republic of The Congo – detailed information from Brittanica

Angola – detailed information from Brittanica

List of Characters

  • Nathan Price
  • Orleanna Price
  • Rachel Price
  • Leah Price
  • Adah Price
  • Ruth May Price
  • Eeben Axelroot
  • Anatole Ngemba
  • Brother Fowles
  • Methuselah
  • Nelson
  • Tata Ndu
  • Tata Kuvundu
  • The Underdowns
  • Mama Tataba
  • Pascal
  • Elisabet
  • Patrice, Martin-Lothaire, and Natan Ngembe
  • Sister Therese
  • Patrice Lumumba
  • Joseph Mobutu
  • Agostino Neto

Join Us For the Book Discussion on Zoom

Tuesday, March 19, 2024, 7:00 pm Eastern time
Questions will also be posted on our blogs: Highly Reasonable, Carole Knits, Dancing At the Edge.

Please RSVP to receive Zoom link information by emailing Kym Mulhern (email in sidebar) by March 18, 2024. Thank you.

“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.”
Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible