Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible Introduction

She spent years researching her eighth novel, studying dozens and dozens of books about African history and the Congolese language, reading and re-reading the King James Bible front-to-back and back-to-front, thumbing through pop-culture magazines of the 1960s, and traveling to Central Africa. We'd like to welcome to Shmoop, Baaaarbaraaaa Kingsoooooolllllvveeer!

Ahem. Sorry. We got a little attack of Oprah-itis there. Can you blame us? Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible was chosen for Oprah's Book Club in June 2000 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and Orange Prizes. So, yeah. It's kind of a big deal.

In the book, Nathan Price, a Southern Baptist missionary, drags his family on a mission to the Congo. What's supposed to last a year ends up lasting a lifetime. Some of the family leaves, others stay—but they all carry Africa with them forever.

The novel focuses on the Price daughters: Leah's devoted earnestness, to Adah's backwards poetry, to Rachel's... well, Rachel can read a bit like Hilly Holbrook. But the book isn't just about this mildly dysfunctional family. It also deals with broad political issues, like the United States' involvement in Congolese politics; religious questions, like how do you trust the word of God when it's been mistranslated by fallible people; and social issues, like where in the world will Rachel find a good shampoo in the middle of the jungle?

Kingsolver lived in the Congo as a girl. She is an advocate for social change, and The Poisonwood Bible is an important book about the world and our place in it. But never fear. It's at least as much jungle romp as it is earnest lecture—so don't worry about getting lost in the jungle. We'll be here to help you find your way out.

What is The Poisonwood Bible About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care? Because Oprah said so, that's why.

Not convinced? Fine. It's a good thing there's another, much better (depending on who you ask) reason to care about The Poisonwood Bible: it's about adapting to change and making a difference. Whether you're starting college or a new job, moving to a new city or moving to a new country, you have to learn how to adapt. And if you're lucky, you'll make a positive impact on someone else's life along the way.

The Price family's journey couldn't be more extreme. They pick up from their cushy life in metropolitan Atlanta and take off to the middle of the Congolese jungle. It's a struggle, especially with their parents emotionally distant (to put it mildly). The sisters have to do it for themselves, but they learn to survive using the resources at hand and, most importantly, their wits.

Each daughter—even Rachel—has something to teach us. And if we read carefully, maybe someday we, too, can make a difference.

The Poisonwood Bible Resources

Websites

Kingsolver Site-ing
You can read an excerpt and about 100 (give or take 10) glowing reviews of The Poisonwood Bible on Kingsolver's website. Add us to that list of people offering critical acclaim.

More Fun than a Barrel of Green Mambas
HarperCollins, publisher of The Poisonwood Bible, has an odd definition of "fun," but their Fun Stuff page for Barbara Kingsolver does offer some suggestions of other authors you might enjoy.

Articles and Interviews

Miss Thing
In this Library Thing interview, Barbara Kingsolver dishes on religion, marriage, and her favorite scene in the book. (Spoiler: she doesn't have one. What's yours?)

Hearts in Darkness
The New York Times criticizes Kingsolver for "transforming many of her characters into one-dimensional pawns in a starkly lit morality play." Do you agree that the political spotlight shone a little too brightly, or was it lit just right?

Video

Rumble in the Jungle
This classic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and grill salesman George Foreman is called out as one of many egregious excesses of Joseph Mobutu. What do you think people at the time thought about the political ramifications of the fight, if anything?

Trailing Behind
There are dozens of fan-made trailers for a non-existent Poisonwood Bible movie on YouTube. This one has some pretty neat nature shots. Jack Hanna, eat your heart out.

Audio

Talk of the Nation... the Nation of the Congo
In this 1999 radio interview on Talk of the Nation (complete with all the gaffes of live radio!), Barbara Kingsolver talks about the history of American political fiction, and where she fits in with American greats like John Steinbeck.

The Poisonwood Audio Bible
While the reader isn't quite as passionate as Nathan Price giving a sermon, this audiobook sample is worth a listen.

Images

Mission: Impossible?
This is a real church in the Congo, and it's probably about 1,000 times larger than the one the Price family had in Kilanga village.

Polly Want the Congo
Methuselah the parrot probably looked like this: an African Grey Parrot. This is the before-he-got-eaten shot, of course.

Awkward Family Photos
This groovy 1960s-era family in their Sunday best could totally be the Price family... after a bath and a trip to the Laundromat.

Keeps Whites White
One of the many American conveniences the Prices had to do without, Clorox, is featured in this classic ad from 1964.