The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of a Christian missionary family in the Congo during the late 1950s. First published in 1998, the hugely popular novel chronicles the family's adventures and experiences with culture shock through the perspectives of the four Price family daughters—Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May— and their mother, Orleanna. The girls encounter many startling situations—both comic and tragic—during their time spent far from home.

Kingsolver did not intend to write The Poisonwood Bible to focus on the lives of the Price children alone, however. The author wanted to make a broader point about Western colonization in Africa to show how the oppression of native populations had been continued in the postcolonial era through systematic controls such as puppet governments that owed their allegiance to Western powers and missionary work. Kingsolver framed The Poisonwood Bible within the context of the political unrest and violence that affected the region at the time. This is clear from the rather monstrous portrayal of Nathan, the Price family patriarch, whose missionary work closely resembles the imperialistic justification for colonization: "spreading civilization" in Africa.

1. The Poisonwood Bible was inspired by a 1980s study of flaws in American foreign policy.

Kingsolver was inspired to write The Poisonwood Bible after reading an analysis of American foreign policy in the developing world. The 1984 study Endless Enemies, by American investigative journalist Jonathan Kwitny, details the United States's use of force and occupation in less developed countries to overrule the governments' sovereignties, or ability for self-government. Kwitny discusses a 1960 coup in the Congo, conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which Kingsolver found particularly noteworthy. Kingsolver decided to craft The Poisonwood Bible as an allegory of this flawed diplomatic tendency. In an article she explained:

[Endless Enemies is] an analysis of US foreign policy that lays bare the business of governments making enemies by overruling the autonomy of developing nations, much the way a condescending parent would rule a child. The analogy struck me as novelesque: a study of this persistent human flaw—arrogance masquerading as helpfulness—could be a personal story that also functioned as allegory.

2. Kingsolver moved to the Canary Islands to be closer to Africa while researching for The Poisonwood Bible.

While writing The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver visited the Congo region extensively for research purposes. In 1991 Kingsolver and her daughter moved to the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Morocco, for a year. This move enabled her to be closer to the African mainland and to make frequent trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to study the nation's culture and to conduct interviews with locals.

3. The Poisonwood Bible "haunted" Kingsolver for a decade before she actually wrote it.

Kingsolver took quite a while to write The Poisonwood Bible—and a long time to decide to follow through with the project. Kingsolver described that the project lingered for more than a decade and "haunted" her office in the form of a file cabinet labeled "DAB," which stood for "the Damned Africa Book." She explained:

Into that cabinet I stuffed notes, clippings, photographs, character sketches, plot ideas, anything that struck me as relevant to the huge novel I wished I could write. I did not believe I would ever be writer enough to do it. So the files grew fat, in proportion to my angst about the undertaking.

4. There was a strange rumor that Kingsolver had attempted a presidential assassination.

Kingsolver has been the target of some strange gossip and absurd misinformation. She was upset that, after the publication of The Poisonwood Bible, many of her readers and fans believed that her parents were missionaries and that the novel was semiautobiographical. Kingsolver has repeatedly denied this. The strangest rumor, however, began when someone edited her Wikipedia page to claim that she had been part of a terrorist group that planned an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford. Kingsolver was understandably befuddled by this rumor and ended up making her own website specifically to clear up misinformation that had been written about her.

5. Kingsolver's family lived in the Congo briefly when she was a child.

Although Kingsolver's parents were not missionaries to the Congo, her family did live in the region for a short time. Her mother and father were part of a public health mission, and the family lived in a tiny Congolese village in 1963. Although the concept of a young, foreign girl living in the Congo may seem reminiscent of The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has tried to downplay the role this childhood memory had in her decision to write the novel. She has noted that none of her experiences in Africa as a child were framed in the "adult context" that she used in writing The Poisonwood Bible, claiming:

The bottom line is this: I was a child, in 1963, and understood only about a thimbleful of what was happening around me in the Congo. The thematic material of The Poisonwood Bible is serious, adult stuff. I wrote the book, not because of a brief adventure I had in place of second grade, but because as an adult I'm interested in cultural imperialism and post-colonial history. I had to approach the subject in an adult way.

6. Kingsolver was banned from Zaire for speaking out against a dictator.

Kingsolver was always very vocal in denouncing Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from 1965 to 1997. The United States had installed Mobutu in power during the 1960s, and he retaliated against Kingsolver's claims of his human rights violations by banning her from visiting the country. Although Kingsolver made numerous trips to Africa during the 1990s, she was forbidden from entering Zaire—a fact she claimed contributed to her slow progress with The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver's husband finally persuaded her to begin writing anyway, as she recalled:

Then one day in 1994, my husband called my bluff. "You know what?" he asked. "That's just an excuse. Really, you're scared. You know enough to begin this novel, so just write." I did not know whether he was right or wrong about my knowing enough. But as for my using Mobutu as an excuse, he was right. So I did it. I began.

7. Despite her fame as an author of fiction, Kingsolver's background includes the scientific study of termites.

Kingsolver didn't always plan to be a writer—her first academic interest was actually music. When she began her undergraduate studies at DePauw University in Indiana, she had a scholarship for classical piano. However, she was concerned about the career possibilities for a music major and quickly switched to biology, later earning her master's degree in the field. Kingsolver always had an interest in writing, however, and reportedly wrote poems in the margins of her biology textbooks throughout her college years. Before finally deciding to focus on writing fiction, Kingsolver worked as a science writer at the University of Arizona and conducted a research survey on "the social lives of termites."

8. Kingsolver moved from Arizona to Virginia so that she could grow her own food.

Kingsolver is committed to sustainable food practices—so much so that she moved across the country to grow her own food. The author and her family moved to a farm in Virginia so that they could sustain themselves entirely from crops they grew and animals they raised, refusing to consume processed foods, as well as foods that had been shipped long distances. Kingsolver wrote her 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about the experience. She knew that sustainable farming would be utterly impossible in Arizona, where they lived previously, due to the arid climate. Kingsolver jokingly described Arizona's agriculturally hostile landscape, saying:

Like many other modern U.S. cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned.

9. Kingsolver used her advance for The Poisonwood Bible to establish a book prize for socially conscious fiction.

In connection with the PEN America literary foundation, Kingsolver established the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction in 2000. The $25,000 award owes its existence entirely to Kingsolver, who used her first royalty advance for The Poisonwood Bible to establish the annual prize. The prize amount is the same as the amount of Kingsolver's advance, which, she noted, allowed her to focus exclusively on writing and to quit her day job in 1998.

10. Kingsolver claimed that Adah was the most difficult character she'd ever written.

Adah, one of the Price twins, was an extremely difficult character for Kingsolver to craft. The author explained that she spent a year figuring out each of the girls' personalities and speech patterns, since the story is told from five different points of view, and that Adah's perspective was by far the hardest to grasp. In addition, Kingsolver conducted extensive research on hemiplegia, the condition responsible for Adah's brain damage. Adah was reportedly "the most challenging character" Kingsolver had ever created.

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