Poisonwood Bible Discussion Questions for Readalong Week 1

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Hello book lovers! If you are joining us for the Poisonwood Bible Readalong, I hope you are enjoying the book. If you’re visiting for the first time to discuss this book, welcome! This month, Lost in Books,  Savvy Working Gal and I are happy to host a readalong of The Poisonwood Bible as part of our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

About Poisonwood Bible

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.

WARNING: THIS DISCUSSION WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. If you haven’t read Books 1 and 2 and don’t want spoilers, please come back to discuss when you are done with those sections.

Ok, here goes…

Story Recap

In Books 1 and 2, we meet the Price Family: father Nathan, mother Orleanna and their 4 daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orleanna and her daughters follow Nathan relunctantly to Belgian-ruled Congo in attempts to spread the word of his Baptist faith. The first couple books talk about the family’s initial culture shock and adjusting to their new financially impoverished environment. The section ends when the Congo earns independence from Belgium and new Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba’s speech.

My Thoughts:

I started reading this book years ago upon my good friend’s recommendation. I was struck initially by how bleak and depressing the beginning was and eventually I gave it up. Determined to make it through after hearing so many book lovers rave about it, I am giving The Poisonwood Bible another try. I tell my kids to try things twice before they decide they don’t like it, so time for me to follow my own rules and finish this book.

The beginning was still tough for me to get through. I am disliking Nathan’s character and it’s difficult watching him trying to spread the word of a glorious God when he treats his own family so poorly and sometimes, downright cruelly.  I get bogged down and a bit lost when it comes to his sermons and Biblical interpretations. His sense of mission is strong and almost too extreme.

I do enjoy that the story is told from the girls’ point of view and how they perceive the Congo and their father’s purpose.  I normally enjoy books that are told from multiple points of view and I feel like it really allows us to know the girls’ better and they are all so very different. It comes as no surprise to me that I like introverted Adah’s voice the best. She’s so perceptive, brilliant and humble, she’s the girl I feel the most emotionally connected to.

What I am enjoying most so far is getting to know about life in the Congo. I don’t think I will ever get to to travel to Africa in person and so far I love learning about the language, the beliefs and how these people survive and thrive on so little. It’s an eye-opening read and like Under the Jeweled Sky, which was set during India’s independence from the British, it makes me want to learn more about the Congo’s actual history. We think of independence from another country’s reign as a positive change but in both of these books, their independence can also have dire consequences for the people living there.

Discussion Questions

1. Which narrator’s voice do you connect with or want to know more about what she’s thinking? Do you like the alternating narrators?

2. What do you think of Nathan? Is he the right person to preach to the Congolese? Do you think he will be successful in his mission?

3. What do you think of Nathan and Orleanna’s relationship? Are they in love or is their marriage more a business arrangement?

4. The Price Family carries little things from the US on them to the Congo, the small comforts of home to start their mission. They carried garden seeds and cake mix. What comforts of home would you take with you if you were traveling abroad?

5. The family has quite a culture shock when they arrive in the Congo. From the meager housing accommodations (which are considered lavish to the Congolese) to the cooking style requiring all day to boil water to prepare meals and have a warm bath. Have you ever been to a place which gave you a culture shock? How did it make you feel? What did you learn from it?

6. The girls make hope chests. I didn’t know the meaning behind them. Did you have one or make one?

7. We learn early on that tragedy is in the horizon. Do you think the Price family is strong enough to endure it together? What do you think of their family dynamic?

8. What message do you think Barbara Kingsolver is trying to teach us with this part of the story?

9. What does independence mean to the Congolese? How do you think independence will impact the Congolese village where the Price Family lives? Are they ready for it? Will it make their condition better or worse?

And some more in-depth questions from LitLovers:

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

Barbara Kingsolver on The Poisonwood Bible

I was really curious to know how the author researched this book. There are so many details about Congolese life. I found these interview questions on the author’s website and it gives us great insight as to why she wrote this book, her astounding research about the Congo and teenagers in the 50’s, and figuring out Adah’s palindromes. Check out the interview with Barbara Kingsolver on her website. I found it incredibly fascinating!

Join the Conversation on G+ and Goodreads

I’ll be posting the discussion on G+ and Goodreads too so be sure to join our groups there and connect with other book lovers who want to Travel the World in Books!

Well that’s it for this week’s discussion. Feel free to answer the discussion questions in the comments, on G+ or Goodreads! And please post your own questions you’d like us all to answer. Please join in the conversation to discuss this thought-provoking book!

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9 Comments

  1. I finally finished Book 2 a couple of days ago:)

    1. I really like reading Orleana’s point of view the most…I think I like hearing the point of view of the mother, because that is where I’m at in my life. That being said, I am enjoying hearing from all the girls, though…it gives the whole story a more well-rounded perspective.

    2. I dislike Nathan as well. I think he will probably never reach the Congolese because he is completely unwilling to meet them where they are or to understand where they are coming from.

    3. I’m not sure what Nathan and Orleana’s relationship was before, but he doesn’t seem to treat her the way I would expect he would if he really loved her.

    4. If I were going to live somewhere like the Congo for a year, it would be hard to pick just one! Probably my Kindle and my guitar (only because I couldn’t take my piano!)

    5. I have visited places with different cultures but I guess I wasn’t there long enough to really feel the culture shock. Either that, or it wasn’t all that different.

    6. I don’t have one but I have heard of them.

    7. That’s the part I like about reading Orleanna’s point of view! It gives clues as to what might happen next. I’m not sure the family is all that closely held together as it is, so I’m not sure how they will fare under a crisis.

    8. I don’t know for sure, but what really strikes me about this part of the book is the stark contrast in culture and beliefs and Nathan’s unwillingness to be open to others’ ideas really stands out to me.

    9. This is one thing I’m not sure about. But I do know that if I were them, I would have left when the Underdowns suggested it!

    Another thing that really struck me was the difference in how women are treated….makes me angry!

  2. As I’ve said on Twitter, I had a little trouble getting into the book. At first, it was really slow going — like I could feel myself drifting off every 20 or 30 pages — and then, all of a sudden it started picking up the pace, and now I’m dying to know how it will end. As for your questions….

    1. The voices I’m most interested in at this point are Orleanna’s and Adah’s. I do like the alternating narrators — they paint a more vivid and well-rounded picture of life in the Congo, as well as of Nathan Price (the only person who doesn’t seem to have a narrative voice) — but I don’t really care for Ruth May or Rachel, and I’m ambivalent toward Leah. I can practically feel myself standing at attention when I see Orleanna or Adah narrating a section!

    2. I despise Nathan wholeheartedly and I don’t think he’s the right person for the job. The man refuses to compromise in any way — it’s his way or no way, even when it comes to leaving the Congo in anticipation of Independence Day. The man doesn’t even take his family into consideration. He’s so completely hell-bent on spreading the Word of God that he decides to stay in the Congo indefinitely, regardless of the danger or of how homesick his family is. Ultimately, I think he’s going to fail. He’s already failing! I don’t see this story ending well for him or, sadly, for his family.

    3. I think Nathan and Orleanna may have been in love at some point, but now it’s all business. Nathan has to present a family image as it’s written in the Bible: the man is in charge of his wife and children, who are subservient. They each work within their prescribed gender roles. His word is the be-all and end-all of the Price family, at least at this point (I haven’t read far enough to know if continuing to live in the Congo will change his mindset and attitude later on in the book). I don’t think Orleanna likes it at all, and I wonder if she’d be happier out of the marriage?

    4. If I was traveling abroad, I’d take my Nook, completely packed to capacity with books! (Kind of funny that I mention that before necessary toiletries like a toothbrush, but hey, that’s the life of a reader!) I’d pack lots of notebooks and pens, and my laptop and cell phone if there was WiFi where I was going. Definitely a camera. Clothes, shoes, headbands, sunblock and bug spray….I guess. But books are what matter most. Give me lots to read and I can at least try to be happy just about anywhere!

    5. I’ve never traveled somewhere that would have given me culture shock, though that will change in June. I live in New Jersey — I have all my life — and my family is going to Nebraska for my youngest sister’s wedding. We’re used to the suburbs and the “go-go-go” lifestyle, with malls and amusement parks everywhere. My dad has already told me that Nebraska is wide-open spaces, lots of farmland, and slow and relaxed — the exact opposite of what we’re accustomed to. I have a feeling there’s a blog post coming after that trip!

    6. I actually do have a hope chest! I don’t know where it is right now, though…I think my mom has it. I never kept “trousseau” items in mine, though; it was full of dance costumes and competition programs, and all kinds of random things from my youth. I looked at it as one giant time capsule. I don’t even know if all that stuff is still in there, or if my mom threw it all away…

    7. I think each of the Prices will handle this tragedy, whatever it may be, in their own way…but as a family, I don’t think they’ll be able to endure it. Just look at how they handled the news of Adah supposedly being eaten by a lion! Orleanna freaked out, Nathan immediately started going on about God trying to teach them a lesson and, once the girls understood what had happened, they continued treating Adah the same way they always had. I don’t like this family dynamic AT ALL. Nathan looks down on his family just because they’re women (I understand it was the attitude of the time, but still), and they have no say in any decision that affects the whole family (like when Nathan decided they’d stay in the Congo despite being warned to go home). He clearly doesn’t care about his family or their well-being if his preaching doesn’t directly benefit from it. Orleanna is so caught up in trying to get all of her work done that she can’t focus on being a mother. And I bet neither Nathan or Orleanna has any idea what’s happening inside their daughters’ heads — what they’re thinking about, what their desires and needs are — and so the family, in my opinion, seems completely disconnected.

    8. I think the message here is to learn to compromise! Make the best of your situation, take other people into account, and compromise!

    9. I think independence to the Congolese means freedom from white control and an opportunity to show the world that they can handle themselves and run their own country. In the village where the Price family lives, I think the only impact will be the removal of the Price family themselves and therefore no one to preach the Word of God. They have their beliefs already, and because Christian beliefs challenge so much of their current system it’s really not a surprise that they’re resisting so strongly. I think they’ll carry on living the same way they did before the Prices and their predecessors arrived, and their conditions will remain as they always have.

    [You had two questions listed as number 9, so I’ve changed the numbers to continue the order.]

    10. The poisonwood tree looks like any other to the Prices initially, until they learn that the sap in the tree is extremely poisonous (hence “poisonwood”). I think that, to them, the Congolese look like any other black people that, pushed hard enough, will bend to the will of the white man (in this case, they’ll convert from their pre-existing belief system to Christianity). I think they’re going to learn that the Congolese are tougher to convert than they anticipated, especially Nathan. I also believe that, as Nathan and Leah’s first encounter with the poisonwood in the garden proves, they will have to make compromises in order to get anything done. They cannot simply uproot the trees, or the existing belief system, and replace it with their own seeds and expect a good result. They will have to make compromises in order to have any chance at accomplishing their goals. The circumstances surrounding the entry of “the poisonwood bible” are crucial, as the poisonwood tree in the garden serves as a living metaphor for what they’re dealing with in the village.

    11. I don’t think Nathan Price needs a voice of his own, as his voice is the loudest of all the Prices in the narrative as a whole. His voice, it seems, is the only one that truly matters within the family dynamic — what he says goes, whether his all-female family likes it or not. They are subordinate to him and must simply do as they’re told. I feel like I personally don’t know enough about him yet to understand why he behaves as he does and why he’s so steadfast in his beliefs (and furthermore, why he utterly refuses to compromise on any level), so no, I don’t think I’ve learned enough from his wife and daughters to formulate an adequate explanation at this point. What I do think is that getting an explanation absolutely matters, as the possibility of a previous traumatic event or something similar could completely change my opinion of Nathan Price (which, as it currently stands, is that he’s not only a religious zealot but a heinous husband and father, and that I deeply pity his family and the villagers for having to deal with someone so pigheaded and selfish who hides behind God’s name).

    12. Obviously, blacks in America are different from blacks in Africa in terms of this book; American blacks are likely more civilized than African blacks. However, they’re treated much the same in both places by whites. It seems that Orleanna and the girls feel about African blacks much the same as they did about the blacks back home in Georgia, with the exception that they’re immersed in the African village instead of segregated as they are at home. They don’t appreciate the Congolese nonchalance about nudity or about the way they live and work, but they’re stuck with it whether they like it or not. It does, however, seem like a few of them are slowly coming to realize that black people aren’t bad just because their skin color is different. To be honest, I’m not sure that I caught a message from Kingsolver regarding these differences, so I can’t say whether I agree or not.

    I hope to have some more fully-formed opinions as we get further into the book!

    1. 1. I like Orleanna’s voice too, she’s the secret keeper and the parts set in Georgia seem to clue us in ever so teasingly what the future holds. Do you wish Nathan’s perspective was shown? (or maybe that’s a good question for next week). I don’t mind Leah’s voice, even though she’s a daddy’s girl and always trying to please Nathan, I feel like she’s the one who best understands him and sort of explains his antics.

      2. I hope Nathan sees the light of compromise and what his actions are costing his family sometime before the story is over. I don’t know that he will, he seems very inflexible. I agree and don’t think he will accomplish his mission. He needs more compassion and empathy to understand the Congolese people before convincing them of his beliefs.

      3. Well I’m further and Orleanna does explain how they met and their courtship. I’m still on the fence on the answer to my own question! 🙂 It’s clear they aren’t happy together in the Congo but Nathan is determined for them all to stay when they all just want to go home. I don’t quite understand if it’s his mission why he has to drag the family along. But like you said, maybe it’s his view is that they are there to serve him,

      4. Yes a fully loaded Nook is nice. Good call on the sunblock and bug spray! Especially in the Congo.

      5. Aw, congratulations to your sister. I’ve never been to Nebraska but wide open spaces and nothing else to do sounds like a great book retreat to me (after you’re done partying with family, of course). How many siblings do you have? I hope it’s beautiful, restful and rejuvenating.

      6. Hee hee, I remember my mom having one for our family too where she kept all her photo albums. She gave me all the pictures so I’m guessing that she gave the chest away. I didn’t know it was meant for a girl to take with her when she got married. What kind of dance did you do? I was such a tomboy, I did ballet for like a week. Grace is not my strong suit!

      7. Well I’m glad I didn’t give it away but Orleanna hints at the tragedy early in the book. I was like…whaaaa? Oh i agree, the family doesn’t talk to each other at all, they are very disconnected and I think they all struggle with their inner demons that they don’t have time to talk/care about what the others are doing. I really don’t get how Leah and Adah can be twins and Leah is so condescending and indifferent to Adah.

      9. Wait till you get to the part where the Prices meet their predecessors. I love that part!

      10. Wow, excellent analysis! I agree.

      11. We get a little more of Nathan’s story from Orleanna in the next couple books. There must be still more to the story to explain from the man she met to the “religious zealot” as you said. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I find him pretty despicable at this point. But I don’t do well with people that don’t at least try to understand another person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree but at least understand why it’s important to them or where they are coming from.

      12. Well said. Did you click on the interview with Barbara Kingsolver I linked to. She talks about her message and why she felt the need to tell this story. I loved hearing her thoughts on it.

      Thanks so much for sharing your comments Erin! So glad you joined in and took so much time to write to me 🙂 Hope you will check back later as other readers add comments too. I invited you to our Goodreads group in case you want to join discussion there. There are some others joining in there 🙂

  3. Great synopsis of early part of book and especially your reactions to it. Thanks for sharing these. I had the same wrestle with myself of laying the book aside at first and now picking it up again and forging ahead and into its world. The fraught emotional world of this family is as difficult to visit as the new environment they must adjust to, which has many welcoming aspects–I like Mama Tataba, for example, and the people’s attempt to celebrate the family when they arrived. This reminded me of “An African in Greenland,” especially the author’s difficulty of eating strange (to him) foods offered to the new arrival out of love!

    You’ve framed some excellent questions–I’m already mulling over my answers, and I’ll be back to offer my further replies either here or on Goodreads. I just wanted to stop in now and say cheers–grateful for the encouragement to keep reading this rich and meaningful story.

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