Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Summary

By Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible Summary

Welcome to the jungle. There won't be fun or games.

It's the 1960s and the Price family—Nathan, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May—travel from Georgia in the good ol' U.S.A. to Kilanga Village in Africa. Nathan, a Southern Baptist preacher, has decided to take up the mission in Kilanga and convert all the godless primitive heathens to Christianity, come hell or high water (or mosquitos, ants, parasites, lions... we could go on and on).

Yeah, this is going to go well.

First off, it takes a while to get over the culture shock of being in the middle of the jungle without running water or Betty Crocker. The women walk around with no tops on! And their parrot, Methuselah, often shouts things like "piss off!" It's so wacky! Plus, the mass baptism of Kilanga isn't going as planned. Mama Tataba, hired by the previous preacher, Brother Fowles, finally tells Nathan that no one wants to be baptized because crocodiles in the river eat people.

And then things really get bad. Nathan refuses to stop with the baptism-talk; Mama Tataba quits, leaving the family relatively helpless; Methuselah squawks one "piss off" too many; Adah almost gets eaten by a lion; Ruth May comes down with malaria, and then the Congo declares its independence from Belgium. The Underdowns, who arranged for the Prices to come to Kilanga in the first place, advise them to leave (smart move), but Nathan refuses to go until every last person in Kilanga is baptized. On the Congo's Independence Day, Methuselah is devoured by another animal in the jungle. Who knew independence tasted like raw parrot?

Anatole, the school teacher, and Nelson, the boy who replaced Mama Tataba, teach Leah to hunt while Tata Ndu, the village chief, bribes the Price family with meat and stuff in hopes they'll sell him their oldest daughter, Rachel. Unable to deflect his interest by scratching herself in public, Rachel starts up a fake relationship with skeevy pilot Eeben Axelroot, which soon turns into a real relationship. A real creepy one.

Next up on Oregon Trail: The Africa Edition, a plague of ants comes in the night and covers Kilanga. The whole Price family manages to escape into the river, but it's a close call for Adah, who has trouble walking due to a disease called hemiplegia, when her mother chooses young Ruth May and leaves Adah behind.

Things go from bad to worse (no, really) when the people of Kilanga hold their own election. On the ballot: whether or not to accept Jesus Christ as their personal god. They decide not. Leah angers the men of Kilanga when she participates in the village hunt. Furious at her blatant assault to their patriarchy (and probably mad because she bagged bigger game than some of the men), the village witch doctor, Tata Kuvudundu, puts a snake in the chicken coop as a warning. It bites Ruth May, and she dies.

That's the straw (by "straw," we mean "dead five-year-old girl") that breaks the camel's back. Orleanna makes a burial shroud for Ruth May, puts all the family's belongings in the yard for anyone to take, and leaves, taking her daughters but leaving her husband behind. Mbote, good Reverend Price! Mbote is Congolese for both hello and good-bye. In this instance, it means "good riddance."

The family's story splits from here on out, so here's a quick Where Are They Now:

  • Orleanna and Adah return to America, where Adah goes to college, becomes a doctor, and loses her limp. 
  • Leah marries Anatole and stays in Africa, fighting against injustice and making microscopic progress, if any, against the Congo's corrupt American-installed regime. 
  • Rachel runs away with Eeben Axelroot. After a series of failed marriages, divorces, and widowhoods, she finds herself in possession of The Equatorial, a hotel which Rachel runs like a country... a corrupt country. 
  • Leah hears that her father was burned to death by angry villagers who blamed him when a young girl actually was eaten by a crocodile. Yikes. 
  • And Ruth May's spirit remains in the trees of the Congo, watching her family as they go through their lives, imploring them to forgive each other, to forgive themselves, and to move on already.

Okay, that was weird.