The novel begins with Orleanna Price, mother and wife of the Price family, asking the reader to envision a scene in a jungle. Four girls and a woman come walking through the jungle and sit by a river to have a picnic of meager portions. The family is hungry and tired, she tells us, and eventually the four girls go swimming in the river and leave the woman alone. Orleanna identifies the woman as herself and the girls as her daughters, and thus the reader is introduced to the five narrators of the novel. Orleanna, however, is not alone for long on the bank of the river. Soon, she is joined by a okapi, a small mythical creature who few have seen. She calls this animal "her secret."
Orleanna relates the feeling of venturing to Africa with her husband and four daughters as missionaries in 1960. Her daughters, she says, each dealt with the experience in her own way, and her husband was so focused on his mission to evangelize among the natives that he left no time for loving his wife. "I remained his wife because it was the one thing I was able to do each day," she says. As she reflects on her time in Africa, she cannot help but recall it with bitterness and regrets.
The family came from Bethlehem, Georgia and ventured to the Congo to preach the gospel as missionaries. Leah, one of the middle children and a twin with Adah, recounts the family's preparation for the journey. They all attempted to pack as many of the creature comforts of American life that they could, even Betty Crocker cake mix so that they could celebrate the birthdays they would have while on their year-long mission. Orleanna says that all of the extra stuff is simply the "bare minimum, for my children." When the family arrives at the airport, they learn that there is a weight limit to their suitcases, and so the girls are all forced to take out extra clothes and items and to attach it to their person to get around the limits. Thus, they all board with personal items hung around their necks or stuffed in their shirts.
When they arrive in Leopoldville, they are greeted by sweltering heat, the smell of urine, and a missionary couple, the Underwoods, who serve as their guides to the village where they will live, Kilanga. The Underwoods are fascinated by the Price's Southern accents and naivete towards their culture, but they put them on the plane and send them off with all of their clothes and objects weighing them down - except for their father, who only brought the "Word of God, which fortunately weighs nothing at all."
Ruth May, the youngest daughter, describes a few of the events she experienced leading up to their departure. She relates a history of black people, derived from the "Tribe of Ham," and how boys in her Sunday school class teased her about getting eaten by the savages of Africa. As the family boards the plane for Kilanga, the Underwoods give Ruth May some comic books to entertain her, though she throws up on them during the plane ride.
Rachel Price, the oldest daughter, describes the family's preparation in terms of all of the things she is forced to leave behind, including clothes, amenities, and tools for proper hygiene. She describes the family's first night in the village after they touch down. The villagers had planned a large "prayer meeting" to greet the new family, in which they would all cook and celebrate their arrival. They usher the family to the town church, and everyone is there. The men begin beating on drums and singing hymns in their native language, while the women dance and prepare the meal, a goat stew. Rachel is shocked because the women leave their breasts exposed and their children run around naked. One of the leaders of the group then quiets everyone down and invites Reverend Price to come forward and lead the group in a Thanksgiving prayer. The Reverend steps up to the stage, but instead of beginning a prayer, he launches into a sermon on the "light" of God that has "yet to fall" on the darkness of the African tribe. He chastises them for their nakedness and compares their state to the wickedness of Sodom from Chapter 19 of Genesis. The sermon shocks the people and they lose their festiveness. Many of them, in fact, go home. The Price's still try to eat the stew the people have made for them even though they all think it tastes awful.
Adah, the other twin, begins her chapter by describing the village that the family walks through everyday. It is an abjectly poor place, with huts made out of thatch. You can see directly into the one room of each house, and the women sit in the front yard most of the day, cooking. The yard is the social center of the household. To Adah, the world doesn't seem real, as if, "The real earth where the real sun shines seems to be somewhere else, far from here." Leah, however, thinks it's "right out of a storybook...." Many of the villagers use whatever they can get to cook their meals, even using a rusted carburetor to boil water.
Adah is determined to walk the path that leads out from the village, even though she suffers from physical handicaps. Her "right side drags," and she "was born with half (her) brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap." Though she is handicapped, her mind is sharp and biting.
The Poisonwood Bible introduces us to the five main narrators of the book: Orleanna (the mother and wife of Reverend Price), Rachel (the oldest daughter), Leah and Adah (the middle children, twins), and Ruth May (the youngest child, only five years old). As the novel begins, the family is leaving their home in Bethlehem, Georgia to become Baptist missionaries in the Congo, Africa. The town Bethlehem has symbolic meaning - with the name of the place where Jesus Christ was born - who also went on a mission that ultimately ended in self-sacrifice.
Though the novel is teeming with Christian symbolism and double-meaning, Kingsolver turns the concept of a 'bible' on its head by narrating the story through the eyes of five females, four of whom are children. Thus, unlike the Bible - which itself is steeped in patriarchy - here the symbolism has a uniquely matrilineal quality. Indeed, Kingsolver is inviting the reader to see religion, specifically the Christian narrative, through female eyes. Most tales of conquest and missionary activity, of course, are told from a white male perspective, but Kingsolver introduces the reader to a feminist point of view often ignored in such seminal stories. Each chapter of the book, moreover, is narrated by one of these characters, and each character brings her own point of view to the story. Leah seems brave and heroic; Adah is handicapped but retains a sharp wit and biting satire through her experiences. Rachel is consumed with materialism and pride and is hurt the most by the impoverished conditions, while Ruth May, only five years old, has absorbed many of the racist and ignorant views of white adults who are too duplicitous to say such things aloud.
Kingsolver invites the reader to make comparisons to Biblical narratives throughout the book. This first portion of the book, sub-named "Genesis," invites the reader to compare the Price family's travels to a foreign land to that of the Abrahamic narrative in the Old Testament. Like Abraham, the Prices leave their native country for a new land that God promises them. Nathan Price has visions of converting the native Africans and expanding God's kingdom. But, unlike the Abrahamic narrative, Kingsolver is also asking the reader to subvert the point of view of this particular Biblical story. Instead of seeing their soujourn through the eyes of the patriarch, Abraham, or Nathan in this instance, Kingsolver suggests what this kind of narrative might have looked like if it had been owned by a female narrator. Instead of a narrative focused on a promised land, a retelling of this story from a feminine point of view underscores the significance of conquest inherent in any such narrative. A land must be overtaken, as well as its inhabitants, and women become both implicit in this process as well as victims of it.
The beginning of the book finds Orleanna reminiscing on her life in Africa from her current vantage point of Sanderling Island, Georgia. The scene of a woman and her four children offers a vision of rare harmony with the land, where the okapi that's present has a number of symbolic meanings. First, it represents the myth of potential harmony between these women and the land of Africa. More importantly, however, it represents the fleeting notions of feminine self-reliance. As the reader learns, though these five women each strive for their own measure of independence, such independence is often short-lived under the oppression of masculinity and the will of the land.
The tension of the book explodes within the first few chapters when the family arrives on the continent. The opening section is called "The Things We Carried," and Kingsolver engages in a comic critique of materialism, gently poking fun at the family from Georgia who bring large amounts of "necessary" things from their previous life. This reliance on things is sharply contrasted with the poverty the family finds upon arriving in Kilanga, their new home. Kingsolver also blatantly illuminates the inherent racism that the Price family brings with them. Though the Prices are not overtly racist in their new cultural surroundings, the character of Ruth May allows Kingsolver to explore the interiority of the family as a whole, exposing the underlying motivations of the group. The racist attitudes of the Prices' home church in Georgia is indicative of their larger perspective. Ruth May, for instance, calls the African peoples the "Tribes of Ham," an allusion to a story from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Ham was Noah's son who saw his father naked. Because of this, Ham was cursed. This story was interpreted, in later times, as a potential 'origin' story for the people of Africa. The African population, according to this myth, was cursed because of their lack of technology and sophistication - at least from a Western point of view. Thus, besides the many material things the Price family carries with them, they also import a host of myopic values and ideas.
Though the village people warmly welcomes the family, killing a goat in order to make a stew, Reverend Price chastises them for their nakedness and for the way in which they sing hymns and exhibit their spirituality. He compares the village to that of Sodom, a town in the book of Genesis which was destroyed by God because of its depraved behavior. Revered Price immediately imposes his own structures of morality on the people. This will comprise a main tension throughout the book: How can a Western individual honestly engage with a culture other than his or her own without projecting their own standards of morals and decency on it?