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The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 1, Section 1 : Genesis (Orleanna Price) | Summary



Orleanna begins the novel as if speaking directly to the reader. She is on Sanderling Island in Georgia but describes a jungle scene in the past—she and her four daughters in the Congo—as if she is observing it. Orleanna describes how, while she sits alone, an okapi (a hoofed four-legged animal living in the rain forests of the Congo) appears in the jungle. Orleanna explains how the okapi was only recently discovered as a real creature—it was once believed to be mythical, as the unicorn. Orleanna directly addresses her "uncaptured favorite child" defensively: "Look at what happened from every side ... consider ... the other ways it could have gone."

Orleanna offers a historical perspective on Africa, wondering what might have happened if Europeans never explored the continent. References to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy give a date for the start of the book between the 1950s and 1960s. Orleanna describes herself as part of the conquering of Africa—white people taking the land that belonged to the black Africans. She sympathizes with Africa, describing it as a woman: "Her naked body curled around the emptied-out mine of her womb." Orleanna associates herself with the conquerors, but acknowledges mistakes were made, mistakes paid for in blood and not settled yet.


In Orleanna, Kingsolver warns the reader not to be too sympathetic—an unusual tactic, but it expresses Orleanna's guilt about Africa in a powerful way. To Kingsolver, Africa is a beautiful but dangerous place, with "vines strangling their own kin," and where girls are "pale, doomed blossoms." On the other hand, the okapi represents the unique loveliness of Africa.

Orleanna views herself as guilty of contributing to the disaster of Africa and the catastrophe of her own family. The catastrophe is not fully explained, but involves the loss of Orleanna's favorite child. She is haunted by this child, and claims, "I want you to find me innocent ... I'll live or die on ... your judgment."

Beyond her personal sorrow, Orleanna reflects on her own participation in the larger tragedy of Africa: "I ... beheld the apocalypse, but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness." She suggests everyone will be conquered at one time or another, but her sympathy lies with Africa. Orleanna reminds the reader that people who never set foot in Africa also bear responsibility for benefiting from African goods, such as diamonds or cotton. Orleanna compares Africa to a wife whose husband leaves her. Since her own marriage is troubled, this metaphor brings a personal quality to her discussion of African history. Orleanna acknowledges how much she didn't know, and encourages the "lost" child—and readers—to see the story for themselves.

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