Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes|
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Barbara Kingsolver - BIOGRAPHY
Barbara Kingsolver has twelve books in print, including Prodigal Summer, The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, a collection of shorts stories, a book of poetry and three books of nonfiction. Poisonwood Bible was on the best seller lists for over a year, was a finalist for the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection. In 2000, Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal given for service via the arts.
Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Maryland, grew up in Kentucky and attended DePauw University for her bachelor’s degree in biology. She continued her graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona where she wrote for the university science journal. Her science articles opened the door for her to become a feature writer of scientific topics for a variety of newspapers and journals. In 1986, she received the Arizona Press Award for outstanding feature writing.
From childhood, Kingsolver was a lover of stories. It is said that she would often ask to tell her mother a bedtime story. During the 1980's she worked as a journalist during the day, but wrote fiction at night. Her father was a physician who practiced in the Congo for short time in 1963.
Kingsolver’s father was intensely proud of his Cherokee heritage. He claims to have only a trace of Indian blood, but credits his Indian features to a "jumping gene" from an aunt. Kingsolver herself does not emphasize her ethnic heritage, but her novels show a marked influence of the American Indian style of writing in multiple voices and in a non-linear format. She considers writing a "form of political activism" having discovered Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence novels in her early twenties. Yet, she insists that her fictional characters are purely fiction and not a reincarnation of herself or of any real individual. Poisonwood Bible is considered by some as her most ambitious work although it was criticized by some for being "heavy handed" on political issues. Her book Prodigal Summer, which followed Poisonwood Bible (which was published in 1998) received a mix of praise and criticism as some critics called it a "return to her eco-feminist romances." The New York Times called it a "book-length benediction."
Kingsolver has continued to write, publishing a collection of essays titled Small Wonder in the spring of 2002. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with her husband Steven Hopp and two daughters.
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
The history of the Congo as it applies to the novel can be traced to the late 1800's exploration by H.M. Stanley who stirred the interest of Leopold II of Belgium. Heading a group of European investors, Leopold authorized Stanley to establish posts along the upper Congo River and to negotiate with some of the tribal rulers. By 1884, Leopold’s committee had agreements with over 400 independent African tribes, and on that basis declared a right to govern the entire territory. In 1884, the territory was named "The Congo Free State," and Europe recognized Leopold as king.
Leopold extended his control into the interior and built a railroad to get around a section of rapids in the Congo River. Leopold and his military directed mining activities for diamonds and cobalt and were notorious for maltreatment of the natives, including forced labor, whippings, hostage taking and mutilation for even minor offenses. The stories infuriated the people of Europe and by 1908, Leopold was forced to turn the Congo over to the Belgian government. The Congo Free State was renamed, the "Belgian Congo."
In the 1920s, a religious movement began that slowly turned the people against European culture and Christian missions. In 1957, the people were given their first opportunity to vote, and on June 30, 1960, Belgium granted independence to the Congo and installed Patrice Lumumba as prime minister. Within weeks, rival factions brought about a meeting among the army and police, and Lumumba was forced to call upon the UN to establish some sort of order. Lumumba made the mistake of threatening to seek help from Russia and was accused of being a communist. He was ultimately arrested and murdered and temporarily replaced by Joseph Kasanubu.
Meanwhile, European immigrants fled the counSummary umors abounded of the killings of white people. The UN stayed in the country for four years, but was ineffective in preventing the succession of Katanga. Nor did the UN feel any sense of obligation over the killing of Lumumba who quickly became a symbol of African nationalism.
Moise Tshombe, a puppet of Belgian mining interests, gained power briefly in 1964, but was quickly ousted by General Mobutu. Mobutu was able to establish relative stability with all members of his government belong to the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution or MPR. Although Mobutu brought about improvements in foreign relations and investments and started a nationalist movement involving place-name changes, he did little to improve the lot of the villages, nor did his trade negotiations-involving massive sales of cobalt, diamonds, and copper-bring about reforms in the standard of living for the Congolese people. In fact, by the time of Mobutu’s death, Congo was considered one of the poorest of all African nations.
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