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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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Most of the novel takes place in Africa from 1959 to the late 1980's. Nathan Price takes his family to the Congo as missionaries just prior to the Congo’s historic declaration of independence and the election of the first native prime minister. As the prime minister was ill-prepared, the move to independence led to disaster, political instability and unsafe conditions for Europeans and Americans.

Kingsolver takes advantage of the historical crisis by placing the Price family in Kilanga, a province of the Congo where the Congolese men were beginning to get involved in a nationalist movement that had started in the 1920s. Refusing to listen to caution, Nathan keeps his family in Africa even when others leave and the mission board cuts off the meager financial support. The family experiences the same privation that the African people live with. The death of the youngest child, Ruth May, finally drives Orleanna to walk her way out of Africa, taking Adah with her.

The African continent affects each member of the Price family in a different way. Thus, from books 5 through 7, events take place in Georgia, in the Congo and in South Africa, depending on which narrative voice is engaged.



Major Characters


Nathan Price
The Baptist missionary who drags his family to the Congo in opposition to the mission board’s advice Nathan is a driven, self-centered man with misguided notions on God’s expectations. Although he seemed normal enough when he first married Orleanna, his injury in WW II seems to have marked him for life. Furthermore, he has an inflated idea of his own ability and knowledge. He has no regard for women or for their intelligence and no interest in truly understanding the people with whom he imagines himself to have a ministry. He makes no allowance for culture or traditions-or even for safety-in his attempt to create conversions. As the women of his family grow away from him, he becomes increasingly more narcissistic and is believed to be insane long before the incident of his own tragic death.

Orleanna Price
Wife to Nathan Price and mother of four daughters. Orleanna herself was raised by her father, having lost her mother as a very young child. Having little female influence beyond her aunt, she is vulnerable to persuasive skills of the young Nathan Price who seems to have seen her as his own personal mission. He marries her at the suggestion of Orleanna’s aunt who had been providing him with Sunday dinner for several weeks after he had met Orleanna. She is one of the voices of the novel and is continuously driven to explain why she was powerless to intercept his influence or control of the girls. She is a static character in some ways, falling victim to guilt, which she does not really deserve. She introduces each book of the novel with accumulating explanations of how and why things happened as they did. Orleanna’s address seems to be directed toward her daughters, especially Ruth May of whom she continuously begs forgiveness.

Rachel Price
The oldest of the Price children. She comes across as self centered and vain, but she is a survivor. She does not fight but takes advantage of whatever situation comes her way. She also craves approval even as she pretends not to care.

Leah Price
The first born of the twins and the first to truly understand the continent of Africa and its people. Leah is also the one who wants her father’s approval and wants to believe in his mission, but is too honest with herself to see beyond the harm that outweighs any good he might be doing. Leah is open minded, compassionate and able to see beauty wherever she finds it. She falls in love with Anatole, the African schoolteacher and stays in the Congo after her mother leaves.

Adah Price
Adah is Leah’s twin. A birth injury called hemiplegia affects one side of her brain so that she walks with a limp, has limited use of one side of her body, and performs certain tasks backwards. The defect becomes an art form, however, as she is able to instantly see palindromes in not only words but in complete sentences. She is also able to see concepts from a unique perspective and gain an understanding on things other people miss. She is self-conscious about her physical condition, however, and in spite of being intellectually gifted, sees herself as defective and is acutely sensitive to situations which could be interpreted as rejection, but which often have another, perfectly logical explanation. She is also a gifted poet and is particularly drawn to poetry by Emily Dickinson and other writers of short, ironic verses.

Ruth May Price
The youngest of the Price children. Ruth May understands a great deal more than her parents or sisters realize. As the youngest, she has the normal childish fears, which are exacerbated by the terrors of the jungle. However, she is also sweetly, childishly open minded and able to make friends with anyone. She is a static character, but because of her symbolic connection to the country itself, she is well developed. She is killed by a snake about three quarters of the way through the novel. Thus, she seems to be the audience for her mother’s portion of the story and for her sisters as well after her death.

Anatole Ngemba
Anatole is the orphaned African schoolteacher who was rescued and educated by missionaries prior to the arrival of the Price family. He is a minor character in terms of his own development but of major importance in his perceptions of and relationship to Leah. He is not afraid to take a stand for what he believes is right, regardless of whether it means defending his own people or defending the missionary family.

The Congo
The Native American authors often focus their stories around relationships between people and land; but even lacking such awareness, a person could not read Poisonwood Bible without realizing that the Congo itself is one of the major "characters" of the book. In fact, one could even make the argument that the land is the silent protagonist. While I am stopping short of making such a case here, it is nonetheless apparent that each of the major characters must learn to define him or herself in relationship to this jungle that "eats itself and lives forever." The jungle is unchanging; when left to itself, even those areas deforested by human intrusion begin to live again and return to an earlier state. While damage is inflicted by invaders, in the end, the land wins the battle. The Africans call it "muntu" a word that encompasses all being, past, present and future, living, dead, and yet unborn.

Furthermore, the American Indian belief that humans take on different forms under varying circumstances coincides with a similar tradition among the jungle people. Thus there is not the least sense of incredulity over the idea of Ruth May becoming a green mamba snake, of taking on the wisdom and omniscient character of the forest and still retaining the essence of her own human spirit.

Minor Characters


Brother Fowles / his wife
Missionaries of Kilanga prior to the Price family. Brother Fowles married an African woman and stayed behind when the Europeans and Americans were advised to get out of the Congo.

Eben Axelroot
The pilot of a private plane who brings supplies into Kilanga and provides transportation out for emergencies. He seems to have government connections and knows a great deal about the political manipulation going on in the Congo. While he implies that he may have CIA connections, he is also clearly a smuggler of diamonds and other African treasures. He has little moral character; Rachel agrees to marry him as part of a scheme to get out of the Congo, but actually does marry him when her mother leaves the mission and Rachel has no where else to go.

Mama Tataba
An African woman who worked as housekeeper and cook for the Price family. Leaves the family early in the story after an argument about baptizing the African children.

Tata Ndu
Kilanga chief. Has no use for Nathan Price, but exhibits his own brand of compassion in trying to marry Rachel when the Price’s lose their financial stipend.

One of Anatole’s students. He is sent to cook and help the family when Anatole finds out first hand how desperately they need someone.

The first African child to become a real friend to the girls. He gets acquainted through Ruth May’s game "mother may I," then spends time with Leah and Adah as well. He is instrumental in teaching the girls African words and concepts.

Tata Boanda
A village man who bring money and other items to Leah and Anatole to help them escape.

Tata Kuvudundu
Village witch doctor who creates curses and plants the snake that kills Ruth May

Mama Mwanza
Village woman who lost her legs in a fire. Exhibits compassion and selflessness in her attempts to help the Price family.

The Underdowns
A Belgian couple who claim to have started the Kilanga mission. They meet the Price family in Leopoldville and attempt to fill them in on what to expect in Kilanga. They also function as messengers regarding political events.

The Templetons
Acquaintances of Rachel in South Africa. Known for giving elaborate parties. Rachel sees their life style as something she wants to copy.

Patrice Lumumba
The first prime minister of independent Congo. Enjoys his position for a mere two weeks. Important to the novel because his election is the first experience the village people had with voting and gives the Tata Ndu the idea of "elections" involving the Price’s later on. Also represents a political position which makes life dangerous for Anatole and Leah after they are married.

President Mobutu
He took over the Congo in a military coup supported by Belgium and the United States.

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