**spoiler alert** The Poisonwood Bible takes place in the 1960 Congo that the Price family has just flown to. Mr. Price is a reverend and made the bol**spoiler alert** The Poisonwood Bible takes place in the 1960 Congo that the Price family has just flown to. Mr. Price is a reverend and made the bold choice to take his family out of Georgia for a year to do missionary work in a village called Kilanga. The culture of the Congo and the culture that the Prices ignorantly preserve from Georgia clash tremendously. With their small monthly stipend, the Prices are rich by Kilanga standards, but they do not understand that in Congo, those who have a lot are expected to share.
The Prices arrive to the Congo while the government is still the stable colonization of the Belgians. Independence is granted to the Congo before the year of the Prices’ missionary service is over, and the family must choose whether to flea with the rest of the whites in the country, or to finish their mission without the continuation of their monthly stipend.
Part of what is interesting about The Poisonwood Bible is the style of narration. The four Price sisters take turns to tell the current events in their lives. The author made a point to give them four very different personalities, which is what makes this form of narration most interesting. It is interesting to read how the sisters may have interpreted events differently, and provides more insight into characters. Leah may describe the evil side she sees in a pilot, while Adah and Ruth May have separately discovered different sinister secrets of his which they will not share with any other characters, only the reader, and Rachel can find a sweeter, and almost attractive side of him. What results are colorful pictures of each character.
The sisters frequently trade off on narration duties, only dominating 10 or so pages at most at a time. A sister’s portion is more often only about four pages. This is a good technique on the author’s part, as this constant change helps the reader more easily get through dull portions of the plot.
The mother, Orleanna, narrates a portion that begins each major chapter in the book. She is the only break in the steady chronology of the story. Orleanna never tells about current events. Her role is to reflect on what happened in the Congo from the far future. She provides a different type of input than her daughters; the author uses Orleanna’s voice to provide background information. She can give a history for her husband, and even foreshadow events that have not yet passed in the lives the sisters describe.
The significance of telling the story from different points of view grows as the plot progresses. In the beginning, it is just a unique way to familiarize the reader with the different main characters, that is, the sisters. We get to know their personalities by what they think of different events, and the thoughts we hear inside their heads. Later in the story, once the family is no longer intact, this method of narration is necessary because the sisters have entirely different story lines and live in different countries. One of the most satisfying things about the book is that it covers their lives from their arrival in Kilanga through adulthood. There is little question of “what happened next?” other than when a few details are skipped when large chunks of time are passed over without one of the sisters narrating.
An interesting choice on the author’s part was not to allow the father to narrate at all. We only know about his character from what the sisters and mother think of him, and the actions they describe him taking. Almost all of this is negative, which is probably part of why he was not given a voice. As the readers, we are not supposed to like the father, and perhaps if we had insight to his point of view, we would sympathize with him. I also can not help but wonder if the author also partly chose to omit the father’s perspective because she found herself only able to write from the perspective of a female.
The book has a few themes, but they are all interconnected. One major theme is that life is meant to be lived simply. People should have enough, but not much excess. When the Prices fly to the Congo they stuff as many American belongings they can into their clothes which they have worn in ridiculous layers, in order to bring as much with them as possible. Once settled in Kilanga, it seems to them they still did not bring enough. Yet they have more than anyone else in the village. No other villagers have such a large house, or furniture, books, or pans. No one else has seen a mirror. Villagers wear the same clothes every day because it is all they own, and most children run around naked because they do not own clothes. Compared to the Congolese, the Prices live a life of extreme luxury, mostly because they do not have to work for their food as they can easily buy what they need with their fifty-dollar-a-month stipend. When their stipend is discontinued, the Prices are no longer able to pay for their food. As a result, they consider themselves poor, and cannot understand why children continue to show up at their door step asking for money when they know the Prices have none. The Prices can not understand that they are still rich. They still have excess in their house.
The plot really begins at this point, when the Prices have to start working for their survival, like every other family in the village. They learn that life is working for survival. Turning manioc, a nutritionless leaf into a meal of fufu is laborious, but it is the rhythm of each woman in the village’s day. The sisters eventually realize that their neighbor, who has no legs and drags herself around on her palms to do her work and care for her many boys, plants eggs in the Prices’ chicken coop. This woman does not have much herself, and lives in the most difficult condition the sisters have ever seen, yet she does not want to see her neighbors starve, and shares the little she has. That is what is done in the Congo. Life in Kilanga is not complicated by competition for success and strive for power. Everyone is just trying to live their life and keep their children alive through another rainy season and drought. As the Prices grow more hungry and malnourished, they realize that this must be their mentality as well.
Another recurring theme in the storyline is the effect of Western powers on the Congolese. Even before their “Independence,” they are taken advantage of. As Leah Price later tells her children, “This is not a poor nation. It is a nation of poor people.” The Congo is rich in natural resources, rubber and diamonds. The money from these resources goes straight to foreign nations, as they are operated by foreign companies. But it is still the Congolese that work for that money. When the Congolese in the mines do not bring back enough at the end of the day, the supervisors cut off one of their hands. The only impact on Kilanga after the Congo’s independence, is that the villagers need to vote for a president. This election is their first lesson in democracy. The Congolese are to drop stones into buckets designated to a candidate in order to cast their votes. The Belgians believe they are bringing the Congo a great service of fairness and civilization by installing an election process. In Kilanga, the villagers can not see what is fair about voting. They are used to talking about an issue until they all agree about what is right.
This is only one example of how the European and American powers misjudge the intelligence of the Congolese. Leah’s story line evolves to life in the Congo, under the corrupt government of Belgium and America’s Congolese puppet king. When she tells her story, we as the readers can not bear to hear of such corruption, and can only scorn America and any other white person who is mistreating the African people. We can not understand their ignorance, for when Leah narrates, we are looking at the world through the eyes of the Congolese. Then Rachel narrates, and we see where ignorance comes from first hand. Rachel is that ignorant, white woman who bosses around her African servants, can not understand how they can be so jealous of the luxuries she has. She thinks their lack of beautiful housing is due to their bad taste in design rather than their lack of money. The author clearly intends for Rachel to represent ignorance, because she is the narrator that speaks simply and cannot correctly spell big words. This is the author’s statement regarding politics.