Traditionally, Barbara Kingsolver begins her novels with a theme and then creates her characters to develop her varied viewpoints. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Poisonwood Bible which addresses a myriad of social issues, together with the political and economic problems that faced the emerging nation of the Congo as it freed itself from Belgian rule.
'The Ugly American' is personified by the very Right Reverend Nathan Price, a Baptist minister, who in 1959 moves his family from a small town in Georgia to the Congo village of Kalinga to establish a mission. Unyielding and self-righteous, this emotionally abusive husband and father remains aloof and sanctimonious throughout. The story is told in the five female voices of his family in alternating chapters.
Incredibly unequipped to meet the challenges of everyday life, Oleanna, his wife, meekly and obediently struggles in a hostile environment to rear her four children. Her cultural shock is underscored by the process of trying to survive in a world that has no plumbing or electricity and is filled with danger from animals, people and disease.
The eldest daughter Rachel is a spoiled teenager. Kingsolver playfully uses language to make some of her points more graphic as with Rachel's constant stream of malapropisms. Twin daughters Leah and Adah are almost totally opposite. Leah is bright and worshipful of her father while Adah is a hemiplegic mute. Ruth May is the endearing five-year old who sees Africa simply, humorously, and refreshingly.
The Poisonwood Bible is a study of contrasts. Each of the young women must find her life in a difficult and different way. The men they love are in part fashioned by the brutality of colonial exploitation. Their maturation is set against the backdrop of, and is affected by, a country that is going through the tumultuous rise of power of Lumumba, his subsequent assassination, and the rise to power of Mobutu.
But The Poisonwood Bible is more than social issues, the political history of the Congo, beautiful and picturesque descriptions of the land, and the moving interaction of the lives and loves of the five women. Kingsolver goes further still to address the question raised by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness: at what point does a person's descent into a brutal environment require that in order to function or to succeed, they must slowly abandon both their intellectual and emotional connection to mainstream morality, when that morality has been stripped of its context or relegated to irrelevance?
Each reader will be greatly enriched by their immersion in this story, and each will take something different away from this book, depending upon background and interest. It is this depth and richness that makes The Poisonwood Bible an exceptional read.