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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy.

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Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband’s part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father’s intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.
Harper; 1st edition (October 7, 1998)

Book Club Ideas


Include in your book club decorations some of the provisions Orleanna Price felt were needed — “the bare minimum, for my children” — for their ill-fated journey to Africa, such as a Betty Crocker cake mix, and deviled ham (more items on page 13), some of the fruit that grows naturally in the surrounding forest such as pineapples, bananas, and plantains, and Ruth May’s Monkey-Sock-Monkey that went missing when Ruth May left it outside on the porch.

Monkey Sock Monkey

Also, be sure to include swatches of fabric representing the beautiful colors and geometric patterns of the multi-purpose pagne worn and utilized by Congolese women. Or, better yet, encourage your guests to come attired in their own version of the pagne.

Material Swatches for Pagne

Wear a Pagne


The Kilanga villagers had their own unique interpretation of the traditional Christian hymns of “Onward Christian Soldier” and “What a Friend I have in Jesus” (page 24) which “made [Rachel’s] skin crawl”. Rachel was young and unprepared for the cultural differences she encountered in Africa, but a book club party celebrates those differences. Listen to the music of Laurnet Aimard in African Rhythms.

Book Club Menu

Prepare a Congolese meal for The Poisonwood Biblebook club party. Congolese meals often consist of a starchy staple, called fufu, along with vegetables and a stewed meat. Groundnuts (peanuts) are an important ingredient in the Congolese sauces. Here is what I came up with for my party plan.

African Peanut Butter Chicken with Corn Fufu

African-Inspired Peanut Butter Chicken

Pili-Pili Sauce (translates to pepper-pepper — hot and tangy) and Fried Plantains.

Pili-Pili Sauce

Desserts in the Congo are simple and among the most popular is a fruit medley, such as this Central African Fruit Salad. This fruit salad has an interesting inclusion of avocado, peanuts, and fresh mint. Simply delicious.

African Fruit Salad

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.01 stars (?519,183 ratings)
Amazon: 4.3 stars (2,584 ratings)
LibraryThing: 4.2 stars (6,110 ratings)
My Rating: 4 stars I found the separate narratives and the perspectives they provided very effective. I especially loved the voice of Adah.

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. What are the implications of the novel’s title phrase, the poisonwood bible, particularly in connection with the main characters’ lives and the novel’s main themes? How important are the circumstances in which the phrase comes into being?
2. How does Kingsolver differentiate among the Price sisters, particularly in terms of their voices? What does each sister reveal about herself and the other three, their relationships, their mother and father, and their lives in Africa? What is the effect of our learning about events and people through the sisters’ eyes
3. What is the significance of the Kikongo word nommo and its attendant concepts of being and naming? Are there Christian parallels to the constellation of meanings and beliefs attached to nommo? How do the Price daughters’ Christian names and their acquired Kikongo names reflect their personalities and behavior?
4. The sisters refer repeatedly to balance (and, by implication, imbalance). What kinds of balance—including historical, political, and social—emerge as important? Are individual characters associated with specific kinds of balance or imbalance? Do any of the sisters have a final say on the importance of balance?
5. What do we learn about cultural, social, religious, and other differences between Africa and America? To what degree do Orleanna and her daughters come to an understanding of those differences? Do you agree with what you take to be Kingsolver’s message concerning such differences?
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6. Why do you suppose that Reverend Nathan Price is not given a voice of his own? Do we learn from his wife and daughters enough information to formulate an adequate explanation for his beliefs and behavior? Does such an explanation matter?
7. What differences and similarities are there among Nathan Price’s relationship with his family, Tata Ndu’s relationship with his people, and the relationship of the Belgian and American authorities with the Congo? Are the novel’s political details—both imagined and historical—appropriate?
8. How does Kingsolver present the double themes of captivity and freedom and of love and betrayal? What kinds of captivity and freedom does she explore? What kinds of love and betrayal? What are the causes and consequences of each kind of captivity, freedom, love, and betrayal?
9. At Bikoki Station, in 1965, Leah reflects, “I still know what justice is.” Does she? What concept of justice does each member of the Price family and other characters (Anatole, for example) hold? Do you have a sense, by the novel’s end, that any true justice has occurred?
10. In Book Six, Adah proclaims, “This is the story I believe in…” What is that story? Do Rachel and Leah also have stories in which they believe? How would you characterize the philosophies of life at which Adah, Leah, and Rachel arrive? What story do you believe in?
11. At the novel’s end, the carved-animal woman in the African market is sure that “There has never been any village on the road past Bulungu,” that “There is no such village” as Kilanga. What do you make of this?
(Discussion Questions from HarperCollins)

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The Author

Kentucky native, Barbara Kingsolver, was born in 1955 and holds degrees in Biologoy from DePauw University and the University of Arizona.

“Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. Critical acclaim for her books includes multiple awards from the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, among many others. The Poisonwood Bible was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Orange Prize, and won the national book award of South Africa, before being named an Oprah Book Club selection.” From

Other Works by Barbara Kingsolver

Favorite Quotes from The Poisonwood Bible

Silence has many advantages. When you do not speak, other people presume you to be deaf or feeble-minded and promptly make a show of their own limitations. (page 34)

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin. (page 317)

Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here. (page 505)

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for The Poisonwood Bible? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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