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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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THE POISONWOOD BIBLE - NOTES / ANALYSIS

 

SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

 

The novel is the story, told in five voices, of the Price family who travels to the Congo as missionaries to the people of Kilanga province. The story is not told in a chronological format, but rather is divided into six books plus an epilogue. Each book contains several "clusters" of events upon which the narrative voices comment.

The actual chronological events of the story begin with the Price women trying to wear as many of their clothes as possible and filling their pockets with all sorts of household items in an attempt to meet the weight requirement of the airline. They arrive first in Leopoldville where they meet the Underdowns and are provided with information about their mission station. Eben Axelroot, pilot of a private plane, takes them to their final destination in the Congo. Although the Kilanga people had prepared a meal and an elaborate welcome, the initial meeting becomes more of a confrontation as Nathan indicates how poorly prepared he is for the culture or the people. Instead of delivering a blessing for the food, he begins with a harangue against nudity, bringing a self-conscious silence to the bare breasted women of the village.

The seasons of the Congo come and go as the family learns how poorly prepared they really were. Nathan tries to grow a garden by planting straight rows, only to have it washed out by heavy rains. He attempts to conduct baptismal services in the river, failing to understand that the people are afraid of the crocodiles. Gradually, his daughters, except for Rachel, make friends among the villagers in spite of him. Orleanna establishes at least an understanding with the women although she never has any close friends.

The central focus of Book 1 is Nathanís attempt to plant a garden in Kilanga. He rejects Mama Tatabaís explanation of the necessity of planting in hills and finds out the hard way that straight flat rows will simply be washed out by the heavy rains.

Nathan is desperate to get the cooperation of the people in converting to Christianity and submitting to baptism. At one point he fantasizes that he might be able to reach their hearts if he first reaches their physical need for food. He sets off some dynamite in the river, killing thousands of fish. While it provides plenty to eat temporarily, it also destroys more fish than the people can preserve; the result is weeks of a rotting stench and no success at converting the people.

In Book Two, which is sub-titled "The Things We Learned," Leah begins to develop a personal interest in the African people. Ruth May, who is much more intuitive and precocious than her family realizes, breaks her arm while spying on young soldiers in training and discovers that Eben Axelroot is smuggling diamonds. A conflict develops between Nathan and Tata Ndu because of the way the village people are neglecting the traditional gods. Adah thwarts Tata Nduís prediction of disaster when she apparently escapes an lion attack.

During the rainy season, malaria and dysentery bring the deaths of countless villagers. During this time, Orleanna tries to keep the girls inside to avoid contagions. They have numerous projects, including sewing projects for "hope" chests.


The family has been in Kilanga about a year, and the political situation has undergone some changes. The Congolese people demand and receive independence from Belgium and experience their first election. Patrice Lumumba becomes the new prime minister.

In Book Three-"The Judges"- most Americans and Europeans leave the Congo due to the change in political climate. Patrice Lumumba enjoys his post for a mere two weeks, then is arrested and replaced by a Belgian puppet who is ultimately also replaced by Mobutu, a dictator who will run the Congo for about thirty years. The Price family is told to leave the Congo, but Nathan refuses. Their financial stipend is halted, leaving them at the mercy of the villagers, and Ruth May and Orleanna spend weeks on the verge of death from malaria. Showing that he has more compassion than he was credited with, Tata Ndu tries to trade food and trinkets for Rachel whom is he asking for as another wife. Desperate to find a way out of the predicament without insulting Tata Ndu, Nathan and Axelroot create a scheme in which Rachel will pretend to be already engaged to Axelroot. The climax of Book Three is the invasion of the ants during Summary n unusually intense dry season. The ants come in the night, devouring everything in their path, forcing the people to seek safety on the opposite side of the river. During the ant invasion, Adah "learns" that she is not worth saving, and Leah loses what little faith she had left in Christianity.

Book Four is the climax of the novel. The extended dry spell has left the people desperate for food. They plan a hunt, and Leah, having learned to shoot with a bow and arrow, decides to take part in obtaining meat for her family. The decision causes a major controversy as it is considered inappropriate for a woman to hunt. A vote, narrowly in her favor, allows her to hunt with the men, and she kills a young antelope. A fight ensues as one of the men tries to claim Leahís kill for himself. The witch doctor, Kuvudundu, predicts dire curses, and poisonous snakes begin to appear in unusual places. In the afternoon following the hunt, Nelson sees the sign of a curse on the henhouse. Intending to help Nelson discover the identity of the one who is planting the snakes, the girls spread ashes on the ground in front of the henhouse. The trick works, and the girls are able to identify the six-toed foot of Kuvudundu, but the snake planted inside the henhouse fatally strikes Ruth May. Orleanna single handedly prepares Ruth May for burial, then, followed by her remaining daughters, simply walks away from Kilanga and the Congo.

Book Five is like an extended conversation with an unseen audience as the remaining Price women take turns telling the stories of their lives after the death of Ruth May. Orleanna and Adah return to Georgia. Orleanna first lives in a small shack where she takes up gardening while Adah attends college and acquires a degree in medicine. Leah, who has a bout with malaria that makes it impossible for her to travel with her mother and Adah, eventually recovers and marries Anatole. In spite of the danger and two frightening terms in Mobutuís prisons, Leah and Anatole build a home and a family that is filled with love. By the end of the novel, the family is able to establish a life in relative safety in neighboring Angola.

Rachel marries Eben Axelroot, but after years of enduring his abuse and infidelity, leaves him for a French ambassador. That relationship is equally unsuccessful. She finally marries an older man, Remy Fairly, who dies, leaving her with a resort styled hotel. Rachel lives for herself, but is not unhappy with her situation.

Book Six summarizes each of the three sistersí feelings about their lives and memories while Book Seven is the voice of Ruth May. Ruth May comments on the things she has seen, on the state of death, and offers forgiveness to her mother.


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