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Literature / The Poisonwood Bible

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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 Fundamentalist Baptist, to be missionaries in the (Belgian) Congo. The story begins in 1959, and covers The '60s.

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...


This book provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: The only one we meet is Eeben Axelroot, a racist mercenary who seems to be in cahoots with those murdering Congolese leaders, and who eventually takes advantage of teenage Rachel by agreeing to transport her out if she marries him. The marriage doesn't last.
  • Animal Assassin: Done twice using green mambas. Neither reaches their intended targets, but the second one kills Ruth May.
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  • 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.
  • 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. Adah knows this is the truth, because during the ant attack Orleanna made the conscious decision to save Ruth May and leave Adah behind.
  • 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.
  • Brainy Brunette: The cleverer twins are defined as brunettes in contrast to Dumb Blonde Rachel.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Rachel.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Orleanna's backstory. Of course, the events of the book break her even further.
    • Happens to each of the four Price girls at least once, even if Rachel Snaps Back.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • 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.
    • Rachel, too, though like her father the second time, she didn't learn anything from it.
  • Dead Guy Junior: All four of Leah and Anatole's sons are "named for men we lost to war: Pascal, Patrice, Martin-Lothaire, and Nataniel."
  • Death by Irony: The ultimate fate of Nathan, dying on a burning colonial tower.
  • Doorstopper: This book is nearly as big as the New Testament.
  • Dumb Blonde: Rachel (who is blonde) often comes across this way in comparison to her brunette younger sisters, especially with her frequent malapropisms.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: There are a lot of ways to die in an impoverished village in the Belgian Congo, especially when you're Nathan and you refuse to adapt.
  • Finagle's Law: Especially moving toward the middle of the book, as Congo moves toward independence and the Prices' situation becomes more precarious.
  • Fisher Kingdom: Not in a literal sense, but there is a constant theme about how American/Western ways of doing things and people are changed "on African soil."
  • Foreshadowing:
    • 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.
  • Fish out of Water: The family being this is the premise of the story. Some of them start to adapt more over time.
  • Four-Girl Ensemble: Rachel, the pretty Rich Bitch; Leah, the wise, intelligent, strong-willed Team Mom; Adah, the brainy, cynical Deadpan Snarker; and Ruth May, the sweet, naive baby of the family.
  • 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.
  • The Fundamentalist: The novel presents two from different, opposing religious traditions, with Nathan Price and Tata Kuvudundu.
  • Fun with Palindromes: Adah doing this in her early narrations functions as an Establishing Character Moment.
  • Generation Xerox: Leah's four children remind her of her sisters, in order. Pascal, the oldest, chases girls. Patrice is serious and adores his father. Martin is broody and Leah explicitly evokes Adah when describing him. And Nataniel is the youngest by a significant gap, assertive and playful, and inspires his mother to pray desperately over his sickly body.
  • 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 Christian to spend significant quantities of time in Kingala: 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.
  • Hope Spot: Ruth May recovering from her illness, only to die of a green mamba bite shortly after.
  • 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.
    • Although to be fair, the scene in question is written such that if one is unaware of that old belief before reading (to be clear about the belief in question, The Bible has a scene where Ham, one of Noah's sons, makes fun of him for being drunk, so Noah curses him and all his descendants to forever serve the descendants of Noah's other sons, so many pre-civil-war white slaveowners tried to justify their black slaves by claiming that people of African descent are the descendants of Ham), it can come across as an attempt at a tragic explanation of Black slavery rather than a hateful attempt at justifying it.
  • Jerkass: There are several of these among the adult white men of the story. Nathan at least has some sympathetic qualities; Eeben Axelroot, not so much.
  • Klaatu Barada Nikto: Sans a second A, Leah mentions this phrase as one that she heard in "a spaceship movie" that she wants to yell as a foreign language to the Congolese.
  • 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.
  • Little Miss Snarker: One of Adah's defining character traits.
  • Malaproper: Similarly, this is one of Rachel's, who often misremembers common phrases.
  • 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. The author 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 Missionary: The premise of the book is the Prices coming to the Congo so Nathan can be this. And before him, Fyntan Fowles.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Nathan, after Ruth May dies unbaptized due to his desire for a dramatic conversion of the village.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels:
    • 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.
  • Non-P.O.V. Protagonist: Though the extent to which he could be considered a "protagonist" is debatable, Nathan is the only member of the Price family whose POV is never presented.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: Played for Deliberate Values Dissonance. Kilanga women hide their legs under long skirts and think nothing of going topless. Nathan is shocked by their indecency; the Kilanga are similarly shocked by Mrs. Price wearing pants. Juxtapose this with her unseen and barely described father, whose habit of walking outdoors naked is tied to his "senile dementia."
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Leah and Adah as kids. Somewhat less so as adults (at which point Rachel becomes Leah's foil). This is even lampshaded by Rachel who calls the three of them night, day, and the Fourth of July.
  • 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.
  • Red Herring: By the second book, Orleanna's narration makes clear she lost one of her children in the Congo, whom she refers to as 'her little monster'. Dark, twisted Adah refers to herself as a monster, and has tensely described scrapes with a lion and then a massive swarm of ants. She survives, of course.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: With the exception of Anatole.
  • Rich Bitch: Rachel who, in comparison to the more humble lifestyles of their neighbors, starts out as this in the village, and becomes one again after leaving the Congo.
  • Rule of Symbolism: A lot of the Prices' later paths in life weren't particularly usual for the children of American missionaries at the time, but they tie in well to the themes of the book.
  • Rummage Sale Reject: The villagers, in the eyes of the Price children. At first, that is.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: Adah Ellen Price rearranges herself thus, privately, into Ecirp Nelle Hada.
  • Shown Their Work: Barbara Kingsolver revealed in an interview that she sat for hours watching a green mamba in the reptile house of the Cincinnati Zoo just to see what color its mouth was.
  • Survivor Guilt:
    • Nathan's Freudian Excuse.
    • 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.
  • The Swarm: A drought forces a massive swarm of army ants into their village, devouring everything in their path. There is absolutely nothing anyone can do except run for the river, the crocodiles being less dangerous than the ants.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Each chapter is told from the POV of one of the five Price women, Orleanna and her four daughters.
  • 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.
  • Title Drop: One occurs at the end of Adah's final narration.
  • The Voiceless: Adah prefers to write notes rather than speak.
  • Witch Doctor: Tata Kuvudundu, the village's six-toed competitor in matters of the spirit to Nathan. His rage at what he regards as Nathan, Anatole and Leah's subversion of the natural laws leads him to plant the snake that kills Ruth May.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: A lot of the tension between Rachel and Leah later in the book is how differently they view African independence movements due to their diverging paths in life. One marries Eeben Axelroot and moves to apartheid South Africa and continues living a life of luxury as part of the white colonial elite; the other marries a Congolese freedom fighter himself, Anatole and spends much of her life in poverty comparable to the black Africans around her.