The Poisonwood Bible – Book Review

51LI8aCmN7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Book: The Poisonwood Bible by  Barbara Kingsolver
Size: 576 pgs
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classic, May 2005
My Rating: ****
  Historical fiction, religious

Summary:  Baptist preacher Nathan Price decides he wants to be a missionary, so he takes his wife and four girls to the Congo in 1959. Each of the five women share their inner thoughts as they struggle to adapt to a culture they didn’t choose to be a part of.  This is not your typical missionary story as Nathan is a difficult man – rigid and abusive.

Barbara Kingsolver does an excellent job writing this story with five voices – all women.  Orleanna is a mousy wife under the domineering hand of her husband.  Rachel’s struggle comes with a longing for the material possessions left behind, Leah is in constant turmoil over a desire for her father’s approval, Adah can’t speak or walk well but shares her deep thoughts and Ruth May is the typical sweet, fun-loving baby of the family.  Nathan has no direct voice, the book is not about him but about the women’s responses to his actions.

My Review: I didn’t know anything about this book when I began reading it, and I’m glad I didn’t.  I feel my experience was deeper as a result.  As each page unfolded I found myself wrestling with the character’s choices and the consequences of them.  In the beginning I assumed this was a Christian book – after all, it’s about missionaries in Africa.  But, it turns out it is a thought-provoking book that deals with the darker side of humanity.

Barbara’s critical lens on Christianity leaves me sad. I’m not sad that she wrote it, I’m sad that there is truth to what she says.  I’m sad for families today whose true story is closer to this fiction book than they would like to admit. I’m sad because people say they are a Christian and then for whatever reasons squelch the true gospel – the life, love, hope and peace that Jesus gives. It reminds me of a song from the 90’s by Wayne Watson That’s Not Jesus . A few lines from the song say:

Some mortal man convicted of some moldy moral sin
And the skeptics wage their tongues and say
“There goes that Jesus again”

That’s not Jesus
He doesn’t carry on that way
Just some flesh and blood like you and me
Somehow gone astray

What I liked:  

  • Barbara Kingsolver is a talented writer.  The words dance on the pages, the imagery brings each character alive making the book an enjoyable experience.
  • She had many interesting facts about the Congo woven through the book as she lived there for a year as a child.
  • A good fiction book leaves you with emotions and things to think on long after you’ve finished it.  Barbara does that here.

What I didn’t like: 

  • She chose Nathan to be a Baptist Missionary, but didn’t seem to do even the basic research on Baptist doctrine.  The book was full of errors that could have easily been corrected with a few conversations with a Baptist or even a google search.
  • The firsts half of the book was excellent.  I would have preferred she end it when the girls reach adulthood.  The second half has a whole political focus I found hard to follow and it just didn’t feel as intriguing as the first half.


“There is a strange moment in time, after something horrible happens, when you know it’s true, but you haven’t told anyone yet.”

“As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.”

“Sugar, it’s no parade but you’ll get down the street one way or another, so you’d just as well throw your shoulders back and pick up the pace.”

“…I stir in bed and the memories rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass. I crave to be rid of them…”

“I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach lining? There is nothing about the United States I can really explain to this child of another world.”

“…so he just stood there brewing like a coffeepot. Only with a coffeepot you know exactly what’s going to come out of it.”

I would recommend this book to: I  wouldn’t recommend it to children, but rather to an adult who wants to read a good fiction book, learn about Africa in the 1960’s and be left pondering some of the darker side of humanity.


One comment

  1. What’s here is exactly what I need to decide whether or not to read this book! I can see she is masterful with imagery, thanks to your quotes. I know the storyline and know it’s not exactly what I’m looking for in terms of genre. I may come back around to it in the future because it does sound intriguing. Thanks to your thorough review, I understand why some Christians would hate this book. (My sister told me I wouldn’t like it.) The advice to look more carefully into the Baptist denomination, a subject with which she was clearly unfamiliar– I will use that advice in my own writing.

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