The Poisonwood Bible is a 1998 bestselling novel by Barbara Kingsolver, telling the story of the Price family. Mother Orleanna, oldest sister Rachel, the twins Adah (who is a cripple and who rejects normal society) and Leah (tomboy and relatively religious), and the youngest, Ruth May, are taken by the head of the family, Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist, to be missionaries in the (Belgian) Congo. The story begins in 1959, and covers The Sixties.After settling in somewhat, they discover that their mission will be a lot harder than they expected, and that the items they smuggled to the Congo are the wrong ones. That is before the Congo Crisis starts. Nathan Price refuses to leave when the rest of the missionary organizations pull out, determined to spread the gospel. But even in the little isolated village they are in, which is relatively untouched by the revolution (or anything else), circumstances prove too difficult for the female Prices...
Affectionate Nickname: Sometimes played straight and sometimes subverted. Anatole's meaning is affectionate when he calls Leah "Beene." The Congolese also have nicknames for all the other Prices:
Rachel's nickname is a subversion of the trope: Muvula, a white termite that comes out after the rain, because her skin and hair are so pale.
Ruth May is called Bandu; this can mean either "the littlest; at the bottom" or in a more layered meaning, "the reason for everything."
Adah's nickname translates to "Crooked Walker"; not affectionate, but not necessarily meant with derision, either.
Animal Assassin: Done twice using green mambas. Neither reaches their intended targets, but the second one kills Ruth May.
As the Good Book Says: Every section, except the last one, is named after a book of the Bible (or Apocrypha) and opens with a relevant quote from that book.
Author Avatar: Some people see Leah as this; Kingsolver has gone on record as saying that, while her family were missionaries in the Congo, she has little in common with any of the Prices.
Author Tract: Some see the book as a bit too obvious with its anti-colonial message.
Because You Can Cope: The twins always thought this was the reason that Orleanna took Adah back with her instead of Leah. Subverted when Orleanna tells Adah the real reason: after Ruth May died, Adah was the youngest, and so Orleanna needed her most.
Bilingual Bonus: Rudimentary knowledge of French can help fill in the gaps of some of the villager's speeches. And if you're lucky enough to know Lingala, that's even better.
Nathan's backstory; he was the only member of his division to survive the Bataan Death March, and it was the reason he was so steadfastly committed to spreading the gospel, even as the events of the book broke him further.
The end of Ruth May's last narration, where she says that if she were to die, she would want to turn into a green mamba, since then she wouldn't have to be worried about being bitten by one, and watch everybody from the trees. Later, Ruth May is killed by a green mamba, and the final chapter of the book, titled "The Eyes in the Trees," is narrated by Ruth May posthumously, and presumably reincarnated as a green mamba.
As pointed out by Leah later in the book, the Price daughters' hope chests foreshadow their eventual marital statuses. Rachel cranks out numerous smaller projects. This symbolizes her multiple failed marriages. Leah works steadily on one big project, which symbolizes her steady commitment to Anatole in the face of numerous troubles. Adah disdains and makes fun of the whole thing, symbolizing her decision to never marry and overall cynical view of the institution. Ruth May is considered too young and thus exempt, just as she would be exempt from marriage because of her early death.
Also, during Orleanna's very first narration (which takes place in the future) she mentions being the mother of children living and dead. You don't think much of it until Ruth May dies.
Four-Temperament Ensemble: The Price women minus Ruth May — Rachel is sanguine, Leah is choleric, Adah is melancholic and Orleanna is phlegmatic. Ruth May herself starts out sanguine but turns phlegmatic after her illness, which pushes Orleanna closer to supine.
Genki Girl: Ruth May has shades of this, at least at first.
Going Native: Subverted with Nathan. Averted, and eventually inverted with Rachel (who seems to become more racist and jingoistic the longer she spends in Africa). Alternately played straight and deconstructed with Leah. Played more or less completely straight with the last American or Christian to spend significant quantities of time in the Congo: Fyntan Fowles, a Catholic priest who deserted his order.
The Hecate Sisters: The three older and surviving Price sisters — Rachel is the maiden, Leah is the mother and Adah is the crone.
Homage: More than a few critics of the novel have noticed its similarities to Little Women. Kingsolver asserts in interviews, though, that her novel is not meant to be a deliberate re-working of Alcott's novel.
Innocent Bigot: Being only five years old and not having gone to school yet (though of course, coming from 1950s Georgia as she does, formal education would only make it worse), only Ruth May can commence her narration by pronouncing, "God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham" and sound completely sincere.
Know Your Vines: An American missionary in Congo ends up with tree sap on his arm and forehead, but pays it no heed. A local tells him "That tree, it bites", a warning he can't make sense of. The next day, he wakes up with a severe skin irritation where the sap was.
Mighty Whitey: Subverted — Leah ends up adopting the Congolese lifestyle in her marriage to Anatole, but her whiteness still marks her as an outsider and she has to continually work to convince her neighbors that she is on their side, not that of the colonialists.
A Million Is a Statistic: The constant deaths of village children to disease is only ever mentioned in passing. The death of Ruth May is a major turning point in the book. When the Prices suddenly see the villagers' routine death rituals applied to one of their own, it hits them that they've been surrounded by tragedy the whole time and just haven't seen it because it wasn't happening to them. Barbara Kingsolver has stated in interviews that she intended this realization to be a lesson to her readers about this trope as well as Missing White Woman Syndrome.
The local language Lingala is tonal and has multiple meanings for most words. While the girls quickly catch on, Nathan is too arrogant to realize his ignorance and spends week after week proudly declaring that Jesus is a poisonwood tree.
Similarly, Nathan's continued botching of the language makes it ambiguous whether they pray to God, "the most loving Father", the "Father of Fishbait" or "Father of small potatoes". He also manages to make the Christian Communion sound like drinking actual blood and eating actual flesh — an understandable mistake, but also an ironic twist on the cannibal stereotype.
La Résistance: Anatole becomes a member of the resistance against Mobutu's rule. This being Africa, the trope get played with: Leah notes how the same attitudes often cause her, as a White person, to be assumed to be colonialist, despite the fact that she is married to Anatole and has mostly Gone Native. There are also mentions of how the more violent wing of La Résistance sometimes kills people who don't deserve to be killed, such as Pascal.
Leah has a lot of this. She has a variation of it toward Adah, worried that some action of hers in the womb caused Adah's disability. She later has it toward Ruth May, after she dies as part of Leah's scheme to catch the witch doctor.
It pretty much defines Orleanna's life after Ruth May dies; and even Adah wonders why it had to be Ruth May rather than herself.
Throwing Off the Disability: Adah, when she finds out that she was misdiagnosed and doesn't have hemiplegia after all; her "slant" and difficulty talking were habits learned in childhood rather than results of a medical condition. Played with, though, since it still doesn't happen easily or flippantly. Also played with in that Adah ends up preferring how she was with the disability.