Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price brings his wife Orleanna and his four young daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before its turbulent passage into independence as the state of Zaire. The Prices’ stay in the tiny village of Kilanga occasions escalating conflicts of cultures and values. The differences between the social, religious, and political habits of the United States and Africa are a source of both wonder and strife.

Orleanna and most of her daughters develop bonds with the people of Kilanga whose dimensions are much deeper than they first realize. At the same time, the family finds itself increasingly at odds with each other. All the women are engaged in a passage to personal identity and independence from Nathan: Orleanna, the dutiful minister’s wife; materialistic teenager Rachel; fervent, idealistic Leah, who emulates her father until it’s impossible to continue; her brilliant twin sister Adah, who walks with a limp and perceives the world in palindromes; and adventurous five-year-old Ruth May.

While all the women are changed by Africa, Nathan becomes more and more zealous in his refusal to change. The novel draws Nathan as a man whose identity has been definitively shaped by a World War II trauma that launches him on a downward psychological spiral from which there is no exit.

The novel is broken into seven books, all but the seventh bearing the titles and epigraphs from books of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha. Within the sections, the story is told as a round robin, with the Price women contributing alternating first-person narrative.

The daughters’ stories begin in 1959 in Africa and record events as they happen, gradually working their way forward to the 1990s. Their mother, in contrast, tells her story retrospectively, writing from Sanderling Island, Georgia, long after her return from Africa. Nathan is the only family member who never narrates.


The Poisonwood Bible’s attention to embodied difference is especially thoughtful. As well as engaging the predictable issue of skin color, Kingsolver explores race and disability as cultural identities whose construction intertwines, and as identities figured very differently in American and African cultures.

Whiteness is cause for staring in Kilanga, and twins are treated as an aberration. Missing limbs and other impairments, however, are both common and socially normalized. As Orleanna Price observes, "here they have to use their bodies like we use things at home--like your clothes or your garden tools . . . Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just have to go ahead and wear out their knees" (p. 53).

The novel’s concern with embodiment and difference is most fully developed in the character of Adah. Diagnosed at birth with hemiplegia and Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia, Adah’s disabilities are portrayed as the nurturing force for her keen skills as a social critic and her rich, linguistically complex inner life. After she leaves Africa, Adah enters medical school, where she not only becomes a researcher into infectious disease, but also is re-diagnosed as someone whose disability is a habit learned in infancy rather than the result of neurological damage.

When Adah loses her limb-impaired "slant" as well as her ability to perceive the world in a palindromic framework, she is not thrilled but ambivalent: "The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly, and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you . . . We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right. How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole?" (p. 493)

While the characterization of Adah seems at times to romanticize disability, the explorations of embodiment Kingsolver enacts through this character are generally astute and a welcome change from the usual fare of disability as essential defect and tragedy. The novel’s exploration of the family dynamics surrounding disability is also interesting.

This is the most ambitious and multi-layered of Kingsolver’s novels (see also Animal Dreams, in this database), worth considering in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a literary representation of the workings of colonialism in the Belgian Congo.



Place Published

New York



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