The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1

The Price family are missionaries in the Congo, where not many Christians live. Nathan, the father, is a zealous preacher, who dominates his wife, Orleanna, and four daughters. His eldest, Rachel, is horrified to spend her teenage years in the jungle. One of the twins, Leah, is excited about the Congo. Leah's twin sister, Adah, is partially paralyzed and rarely talks, although she has an active and analytical mind. The youngest, Ruth May, is perplexed by their new surroundings but learns to make friends with the African children. Nathan makes no effort to understand local customs, but instead scolds the natives for their traditions. He cannot persuade any of the Congolese people to be baptized, until someone reveals to him his chosen river is infested with crocodiles.

Nevertheless, Nathan continues holding services, with the young schoolteacher, Anatole, translating his sermons. Anatole delivers a message from the village chief, Tata Ndu, who sees Jesus as a bad, invasive influence on his people. Anatole also warns the family about Tata Kuvudundu, the witch doctor, who views Christianity as a threat.

As they learn more about their surroundings, Orleanna and the girls begin to realize how the Congolese people have suffered under Belgian leadership. Before the family's yearlong mission ends, the Belgians grant the Congo its independence. The Congolese people will elect their own leaders for the first time, and because everything may change into uncertainty, the Prices are advised to leave. Nathan refuses, even though he knows his family will receive no further financial support. Their only way in or out of the village is in Eeben Axelroot's plane. Axelroot is an American pilot who secretly works for the CIA. A heavy drinker, he flirts with the older girls and threatens the youngest, Ruth May, when she looks through his things.

Book 2

Nathan refuses to evacuate his family, although Orleanna is seriously depressed and Ruth May has grown gravely ill. The other girls do their best to care for the family with the help of their servant, Nelson. Leah falls in love with Anatole, and they have many conversations about the difference between white (European or American) views and Congolese views. Aware of the Price family's struggles, Tata Ndu offers to marry the eldest daughter, Rachel. Since Tata Ndu has several wives already, Rachel is totally uninterested. Instead, she pretends to be engaged to Eeben Axelroot. She doesn't love him, but he is very different from her family, which is appealing. Through Axelroot, the girls learn of an American government plan to assassinate the newly elected Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Books 3 and 4

The villagers are kind to the Price family, even saving them when a horde of ants invades the village. Tata Ndu, however, wants them gone. He arranges an election for the villagers to vote on whether or not they want Jesus. Jesus loses. Around the same time, Leah infuriates the village when she asks to participate in a hunt—something women do not do. Tata Kuvudundu, the witch doctor, is outraged when she is permitted to hunt. He threatens Anatole and Nelson for helping her. Leah and the girls lay a trap to catch him, but when they go out one morning to check the trap, Ruth May is bitten by a green mamba snake he has left there. She dies immediately, and on the same day, Lumumba is assassinated.

After Ruth May's death, Orleanna literally walks out on Nathan since there is no other way to leave and they have no transport or resources. The three remaining girls follow her, but eventually split up. Rachel leaves with Axelroot, her "fiancé." Leah, ill with malaria, stays in the Congo with Anatole. Orleanna and Adah return to America.

Books 5 and 6

The rest of the novel recounts the girls' lives after Ruth May's death. Rachel lives with Axelroot in South Africa, pretending to be his wife. He treats her badly, but she enjoys a more physically comfortable life than she had in the Congo. After a series of further marriages, Rachel is left as the proprietor of a small, "whites only" hotel across the border, where she enjoys a fairly luxurious lifestyle.

Leah and Anatole are deeply in love and get engaged. Anatole is imprisoned for his support of Lumumba. After his release, he marries Leah, and they have four children together. They stay in the Congo for many years, although Anatole is imprisoned again for a number of years. Eventually they move with their children to Angola, a nearby country recently independent from Portuguese rule, and Anatole and Leah remain very much in love.

Back in Atlanta, Adah becomes a doctor. She discovers her paralysis was more psychological than physical, and retrains her body so she can move normally. She never marries but regularly visits her mother, who still grieves for Ruth May. They learn that Nathan, still in the Congo, died years earlier, a crazed missionary in the jungle with no one willing to listen to him.

Book 7

In the final chapter, Orleanna and the girls travel together in Africa, searching for Ruth May's grave. Orleanna lives in a small cabin on an island, permanently mourning Ruth May. In the last chapter, Orleanna rejoins the girls in Africa on a pilgrimage to look for Ruth May's grave. The spirit of Ruth May is described as watching from afar, urging her mother to forgive herself and live out her life in as much emotional peace as she can find.

The Poisonwood Bible Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 The Price family arrives in the Congo.

Rising Action

2 Nathan learns why no one wants to be baptized.

3 Anatole warns them about the chief and the witch doctor.

4 Ruth May makes friends with the village children.

5 The Prices are warned to leave the Congo.

6 The Congo becomes independent.

7 Leah begins to fall in love with Anatole.

8 Ants invade the village, and Adah is almost lost.

9 The village votes on Jesus, and Jesus loses.

10 The witch doctor threatens them.


11 Ruth May is killed by snakebite.

Falling Action

12 Rachel leaves the Congo but stays in Africa to run a hotel.

13 Adah returns to Georgia with Orleanna and becomes a doctor.

14 Leah stays in Africa, marries Anatole, and has children.


15 Orleanna and the girls try to visit Ruth May's grave.

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