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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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Note: 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. It is not formatted in the structure of a traditional novel, using chapters.

BOOK ONE: Genesis


Orleanna Price. Sanderling Island, Georgia



Orleanna Price, the mother of the Price children and wife of Nathan Price, begins the novel by talking about the experience of Africa after the fact. She has returned home to Georgia and seems sad and bitter about the experience. She sees the African forest as she did from the beginning as a place of gloom even though it is "filled with life." The animals are poisonous, the vines "strangle their own," the forest "eats itself and lives forever."

Her opinion of herself is one of a useless wife and failed mother; she feels that her children never needed her, that her husband could never have loved her. At one point her daughters had told her that she never had a life of her own, but her response is that her own life was the only thing she did have. She considers herself only a "captive witness" to all that happened in Africa, yet struggles with guilt about her own part in leading her family into Africa. Her chapter is an invitation to readers to draw their own conclusions about the story the rest of the book will tell.


The first chapter begins a pattern of narration that is followed throughout the book. Each book begins with Orleanna Price, wife of Nathan who speaks from her home in Georgia after returning from the Congo. Bit by bit, she works her way backward until she finally explains, midway through the novel, how she became involved with Nathan Price. She establishes her audience, "my un-captured favorite child," in this first section, although it is done so casually that it is easily overlooked. She explains that she is still struggling to live with the things she learned; she tries to shed the blame for the things that happened on one hand and yet claims a role of her own as a conqueror’s wife on the other. Orleanna begins her narrative by addressing the "eyes in the trees." Her plea will come full circle and be answered by those "eyes" at the end of the novel.

(The remaining narratives of each "book" are told under a subtitle and clustered around situations and/or events that are shared or observed by the Price daughters. Therefore, after the first rotation, the notes are in reference to each "cluster." [our designation])

The Thing We Carried: Kilanga 1959


(Cluster 1 Major Event: Arrival in Kilanga, the African Welcome, and Nathan’s offensive "prayer.")

Leah Price


The trip from Bethlehem, Georgia to the Congo begins with the voice of Leah Price, one of the twins. After packing all the things esteemed absolutely essential, they had discovered that Pan American Airline only allowed 44 pounds of baggage per person. That did not, however, apply to the actual weight of the people themselves. Thus, in an attempt to take as much as possible, Mrs. Price and all four girls had worn multiple dresses and sets of underwear and then had filled all available pockets with other accessories such as cake mixes and various tools.

The first stop in Africa is in Leopoldville where they meet the Under downs-missionaries whose term had expired. There they have to endure their wardrobes a bit longer while the Under downs fill them in on everything they can expect in their new home in Kilanga. They are told not to expect much in the way of help, which Leah finds disappointing. She also reveals some early insight about her father Nathan by letting us know that he was "peeved" by the informative Underdowns and that while the women were loaded almost beyond endurance, Nathan Price was bringing only the "Word of God" which weighs nothing at all. They leave Georgia in midsummer, arriving in Kilanga near the end of the dry season.


Leah and her twin are both able to see the humor in situations, even while being completely miserable. Leah is compassionate, insightful and genuinely wants to believe in her father’s mission. Nevertheless, she notes with irony that the weightiest burden also weighs nothing. That burden will become heavier as time goes on and will be one that each of the girls will have to either shed or shoulder. Leah also gives us a little insight into the Underdowns. While they claim to have established the mission of Kilanga and seem to know a great deal about the people, they are also very distant emotionally from those to whom they once ministered. They have retired to a fine house in Leopoldville with all the modern conveniences; in spite of being full of information, they seem to have little information that is actually useful. Leah also comments on the vanity of her sister Rachel who is fifteen and determined to be as painted and dressed up as possible in spite of where they are going. She compares Rachel to the damsel Rebecca from the Bible who was selected to marry Isaac and given golden earrings "right off the bat."

Ruth May Price


Five-year-old Ruth May gives her first impression of the Congo. She tells the story of Noah showing that she has been taught that the Africans are the children of Ham and are cursed. She mentions that her fellow Sunday school teacher Rex Minton had told them not to go to the Congo because the natives would eat them. She finds Mr. Axelroot rather dirty. She prizes a collection of comic books sent to them by the Underdowns although she had been sick on the plane and had "upchucked" on the Donald Duck comic.


Ruth May also gives us an initial look at her twin sisters with her explanation that Adah is "bad on one side" and "brain damaged" and hates the rest of the family. Her count of the white people who will be in Africa includes her storybook characters.

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Ruff, Karen DA. "TheBestNotes on The Poisonwood Bible". . 09 May 2017