In the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Orleanna Price and her daughters tell the tale of their experiences accompanying her husband to the Belgian Congo as missionaries in 1959. Her and each one of her daughters tell the same story from their unique perspectives as they grow up together but eventually part, physically and emotionally. These different perspectives allow for insight into each of the girl’s personalities and their father’s and environment’s impact on their lives. Orleanna Price, the mother of four daughters and Nathan Price’s wife, struggles to meet the everyday demands of running a household in Congo: feeding her husband and children with the meager selection of food offered to them, disinfecting their water supply, and simply making sure that they have the bare minimum needed to survive. She spends less time worrying about the prospects of religion and America’s involvement in Congo’s independence from Belgium and more on the wellbeing of her children. This is mostly due to the little to no contact that any of those in Kilanga has to the outside world and the lack of ramifications that political turmoil has on their village. She recounts, “We were more interested in the news that heavy rain was falling to the west of us and might soon reach our own parched village” (320). In hindsight, she spends most of her narration focused on the guilt of failing to protect her children after Ruth May’s death and the secondhand guilt regarding America’s political crimes against the Congo natives. She ponders, “Maybe I’ll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I’ll insist I was only a captive witness” (9).
Orleanna realizes that her own people perpetrated the crimes against those whom her husband was trying to “save”, and never forgives herself for her lack of knowledge and courage to leave Kilanga with her children before it was too late. Instead of dedicating the rest of her life to redemption for her ignorance, Orleanna Price finds herself consumed by her overwhelming guilt and grief. Nathan Price, her husband, on the other hand, has no interest regarding the wellbeing of his children. His guilt has no origin in the meager lifestyle he has designated to his family. As a young man, Nathan had believed in God and dreamt of becoming a minister, but it was only after he was spared from death after accidentally abandoning his troop in World War II that he made it his life’s mission to “save more souls than had perished on the road from Bataan” (198). Though not given a voice of his own, it can be surmised through his wife’s each of the Price daughters’ interpretations that Nathan is insensitive, cold, and controlling towards his family. Due to the immense guilt that he suffers after the war, he reveres the Lord to the point of self-sacrifice regarding his family’s happiness and wellbeing.
Most of the time, his sacrifice in Congo fails, leading him into a vicious cycle: attempt to enlighten the natives, fail to make progress in his mission, believe he has failed God’s test once again, and repeat. With his preoccupation with God’s mission, Nathan Price becomes an absent husband and father. This tragic flaw transforms selflessness regarding the Lord into unintended selfishness regarding his family. Rachel Price, the eldest of the Price daughters, can be the most likened to her father. She is superficial, materialistic, and racist, not only when she arrives, but long after her father passes away years later. She says, “Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened. The misery, the hunt, the ants, the embarrassments of all we saw and endured. . .The tragedies that happened to Africans were not mine” (367). Although her situation is permanent as far as she knows, she detaches herself from that reality and chooses to believe that she is above the rules and traditions of the Congolese.
Additionally, Rachel chooses to “Stick out [her] elbows, pick up [her] feet, and float along with the crowd” (405). Rachel, though the oldest sister in her family, relies on her mother and siblings to keep them alive like a parasite, nesting inside its host and fleeing after it has died. Though her thoughts may seem incredulous, her narration is the most realistic; her confusion about the Congolese nature, her anger about leaving her home and friends, and her selfishness are all typical reactions of a stubborn teenager. Leah Price exists as the embodiment of a daughters’ love for her father, as well as Nathan’s willpower and her mother’s love and acceptance. She respects her father’s passion for his religion, although she has given up on believing in it herself. Given her experiences in Congo, she transforms from a daughter willing to do anything to please her father to an open-minded woman. Rarely would Leah talk back to her father until she encountered his contempt for her hunting with the Congolese men. After this encounter, she shifted her respect and focus from her father to Anatole. As a young girl, her father was Leah’s God. He could do no wrong in her eyes until her realization after the hunting incident. The reverence she once had for her father dwindled as she matured in Congolese society, where villagers are faced with the real possibility of famine, disease, and death. Adah Price, though Leah’s identical twin, has a completely different personality than her sister. Born with hemiplegia, Adah’s left side of her body drags, incapable of use. As a young child, she resents her sister and imagines “We were inside the womb together. . .when Leah suddenly declared, Adah you are just too slow. . . .She grew strong as I grew weak” (34). Additionally, due to her selective mutism, Adah completely conceals any emotion or opinions, allowing for an exclusive insight into her thought process as a reader. Unbeknownst to her family, Adah views her father’s devotion to his religious mission as extremely childish and naive. Though she doesn’t say, it can be surmised that living in a word without a voice can be lonely and disheartening. Adah longs to be a priority for once rather than a liability for her mother and her sisters. After finally leaving Congo, Adah is told by her doctor that her limp, which had been thought to be due to a disease, is merely a habit. The trait that she had longed to rid herself of during her childhood made her a unique individual, and Adah fears that finally correcting her gait will cause all sense of belonging in her family. As a child who felt like a burden, and when not that, invisible, Adah knows that correcting her one unique feature will eliminate her perception, attention to detail, and ultimately the “wall” that she could guard herself with as a seemingly disabled young woman. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, the Poisonwood Bible, explores interfamilial relationships and interpretations. Each of the Price women share their experiences and how they deal with their struggles within their personal relationships and their home environment.