Three Books in One

Jan 20, 2021

Barbara Kingsolver’s father, a physician, moved his family to the Congo where they lived without electricity and running water while he served as a missionary.
Credit First African Baptist Church, Wikimedia Commons

Hi, I’m Marcy McKay from Amarillo, author of Amazon’s #1 Hot New Release, When Life Feels Like a House Fire: Transforming Your Stress. I’m excited to be a Radio Reader for High Plains Public Radio’s Book Club. It was fun to revisit The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, an epic novel that spans three decades. The story begins in 1959 when Pastor Nathan Price drags his wife and four daughters from their Georgia home to save the wicked souls in the Congolese jungle of Africa. There are politics, religion, sin, redemption, family feuds, secrets and more.

This is a novel you do not want to miss. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that same year. The Price family boards the plane wearing their best Easter clothes, carrying everything they think they’ll need for their one year abroad, from garden seeds, to cake mix to Bibles.

They are the only American family in their village, and immediately learn how ill equipped they are for this mission. Africa plays by her own rules, and no solutions forced by any outsiders will change that.

Instead of adapting to his circumstances, Reverend Price doubles-down on his fire-and-brimstone ways, while the women are overwhelmed in their new life. Mostly from the crossfire as Nathan drags them all deeper into the darkness of his heart.

The story is told by the five Price women: the mom – Orleanna Price, Rachel, twins Leah and Adah; plus, baby Ruth May. Their differing opinions are both spellbinding and heartbreaking. The family is destroyed, but some manage to piece themselves back together again. The women learn to respect Africa for how the country changed them forever.

I first read The Poisonwood Bible in the summer of 2006 when I surprised my husband with a trip to Playa del Carmen for his 40th birthday. Please note, NOTHING about this book says easy, breezy beach read, but … that’s how I roll. I was in the mood for intense, and Kingsolver delivers.

So, while lying on the beaches of Mexico, my husband looked over from his chez lounge one sunny day to find me sobbing. Fortunately, he’s used to my intensity, so there was no problem. Plus, it was good cry – so don’t be afraid to read this book. The overlapping narratives offer something for everyone. Lots of family drama, amidst the backdrop of bigger, true story. The Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, as well as the CIA’s coup to install his replacement, as well as the outside world rapes, pillage and plunders Africa’s natural resources, robbing the country of its own autonomy.

The Poisonwood Bible is three books in one: a family saga, a spy novel, as well as history book. It’s like Little Women, Mission Impossible and National Geographic, all rolled under one cover.

Barbara Kingsolver’s father, a physician, moved his family to the Congo where they lived without electricity and running water while he served as a missionary.
Credit Methodist Mission Church, Leliefontein. Andrew Hall. Wikimedia Commons

As a writer, I’m always fascinated with the story behind the story. Barbara Kingsolver’s father was a physician and when she was seven, her family actually moved to the Congo where her parents worked missionaries. They lived there for several years without electricity or running water. That time period inspired this novel.

Even more amazing to me is that when writing this book between multiple narrators, Kingsolver never knew which woman should tell what part, so she wrote every, single chapter in all five voices. That is an impressive feat in and of itself, but when you consider the book is 543 pages, what she did was mind blowing.

Marcy McKay

Definitely read The Poisonwood Bible; you’ll be glad you did. This is Marcy McKay, local author from Amarillo and Radio Reader from High Plains Public Radio. For more information, go to HPPR.org.