The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's most heralded novel, is the story of the Price family and their journey into the African Congo as Baptist missionaries in the late 1950's. The novel is told from the perspective of the four Price children - Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May - with flashback scenes interspersed, told from the perspective of Orleanna Price, the children's mother. The book had tremendous success not only because of its dramatic power, but also because of its scope - namely Kingsolver's implicit attempt to create a new 'Bible' that would examine Western imperialism from the point of view of those that experienced it.
The narrative is broken up into short chapters, each told from the perspective of one of the Price women. The narrative traces their lives as they enter Kilanga, a small village in the Congo where Nathan Price, the girl's father, sets up a small church and attempts to baptize the village children. What's particularly significant about Kingsolver's novel is that the narrators are principally feminine, meaning that the voice of patriarchy - so typically associated with the Bible - is ultimately superseded.
The family must overcome the immense challenges of translating their American lives and religion into the culture of the Congo. It is a culture that is so different from their own - not only in language and customs, but in mundane facets as well, including a disparity in weather and type of vegetation - forcing the family to struggle to even just survive. Soon, the political ravages of the continent catch up with the family and they find themselves in the whirlwind of government coups and the violence that follows. The closing portion of the novel details each of the Price girl's lives as they try, and sometimes fail, to leave Africa - both physically and emotionally. Each of the Price women's lives are tied up with this land that ravaged their family and disrupted the life they thought they once had. Each woman is forced to reconcile what the oppressive continent, and the oppressive God of Reverend Price, means for their future and for the future of their family.
Kingsolver's novel struck a nerve particularly with female readers, who saw in her book a 'new' Bible that interpreted the patriarchal tendencies of Christianity in light of female experience. Just as the word 'Poisonwood' is a mistaken utterance by Reverend Price, so the Poisonwood Bible can be extrapolated to mean a revision of poisoned legacies, left by ill-intentioned white patriarchal regimes.