The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, a missionary family is sent to the Congo to show God’s word and covert the Congolese people, “bringing the Christian word to these people.” Reverend Price, the father, expects to be highly welcomed the whole time the family is in the Congo and intends to baptize all of the children, but what the family finds is something entirely unexpected. Some of the family members learn to adapt to Africa and understand the people, while other family members resist the change and keep to their societal stereotypes.
The book is narrated by the girls’ during the time they are in Africa and by Orleanna years after she has left the Congo, living on Sanderling Island, Georgia. Nathan Price does not speak but we are painted a clear picture of his character through the eyes of his children and wife.
The Congo during this time was undergoing radical political changes. Belgium was leaving the Congo after extracting many of its precious natural resources and as a nationalist movement was growing. The Congo was becoming an independent nation with the first elections. Unrest was growing in the country as the elections were soon to be held. Nathan was warned by other missionaries to leave to country and go back home, because it was unsafe for his family. Nathan rejected this even after being yelled at by his wife because he wanted to stay “until another family can come.” Civil unrest began as the first elected president is murdered and as racial violence continues. The family continues to be in a vulnerable situation as Nathan continues to insist to stay in the country.
Throughout the novel, Kingsolver continues to display the role of the American government involved in the Congo during this time, and how unaware the Prices’ are of their involvement. Mrs. Price continues to display the picture of President Eisenhower and Nathan Price continues to believe that America takes better care of its people, “Americans would never stand for this kind of unequal treatment.” She shows throughout the novel just how guilty the Americans are as the Belgians for mistreating the Congo. Social stereotypes about the Congo and blacks are portrayed throughout the characters and events.
An overall message in the novel is describing how something the same can mean something entirely different based on the context. Judgment should not be used unless a person really understands and accepts the situation. Nathan Price spoke some of the native language, but he did not really understand the meaning. He kept on saying ”Tata Jesus is bangala,” but really with his accent meant “Tata Jesus is poisonwood!” Nathan also did not understand the reasoning for the natives to resist baptizing their children in the river. If Nathan had really looked into it he would have realized it was full of crocodiles. Everything the natives did had a purpose; they didn’t have time to run around and have fun.
The Prices’ mission trip to the Congo changed all the characters for the rest of their lives. They learned how to deal with the harsh realities of life and how different two worlds can be. The novel displays a message of overcoming prejudices, fighting to gain control of one ’s self, and learning to adapt to changes that come one’s way. The novel puts into perspective what is really important in life and how to overcome, or deal with major hurdles.
Check the WRL catalog for The Poisonwood Bible