In 1959 a zealous Baptist minister, Nathan Price, uproots his wife Orleanna and their four daughters to travel to the Belgian Congo and bring Christ to its heathen natives.
He is an oppressive patriarchal figure, both in his dealings with his family and his flock. Whenever he wants to punish one of his children, he assigns a bible verse to be copied out along with the one hundred verses preceding it.
Each of the seven books in The Poisonwood Bible begins with a quote taken from the King James Bible or the Apocrypha.
These epigraphs are followed by meditations of Orleanna, with the narration itself being shared between the Price girls.
Rachel is a vain adolescent, whose malapropisms entertain the reader.
There are twins, Adah and Leah, then the youngest girl is Ruth May. Nathan is not actually given a narrative voice of his own, so we view him from the perspective of the other characters.
Barbara Kingsolver’s book has been classed as a post-colonial work, a feminist novel, and a political allegory. It conveys her passionate concern about US involvement in the Congo and the efforts of missionaries to impose their beliefs on the people.
For a time during her childhood she lived in Africa, and she made several trips there when researching for her novel. Her preparation involved study of Congolese languages.
The ‘Author’s Note’ at the beginning of Kingsolver’s epic points out that she spent nearly thirty years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to write this book.