The Poisonwood Bible Summary

The Poisonwood Bible is a heavy book to read. It’s about being overzealous and being a careful parent, about culture clash and hard choices. When you read it to the end you’ll understand that the novel deserves its name from first to last letter.

In 1959 a Baptist priest named Nathan Price assigns himself to impossible mission. He decides to move into the village of Kilanga in the heart of Congo and not to leave it until the very last sinful soul is baptized. Too bad that he also has a wife and four daughters who aren’t prepared to the harshness of the African wild jungle. But still they are his family and they agree. His wife is named Orleanna and daughters are Rachel (age fifteen), twins Leah and Adah (fourteen years old) and little Ruth May who is only five. These women will narrate the story later and each of them has her own opinion about the events.

Orleanna is an obedient wife, maybe she just knows her husband too well and knows that his ideas aren’t something that can be discussed. The girls take the plan of moving to Africa very differently. Rachel, beautiful and popular in her school wants back her average life where she has friends and certain respect and admiration from other teenagers. Leah is as religious as her father, so she is very enthusiastic about baptizing Africans and saving their souls from Hell. She feels herself also entitled for this mission. Adah, though she is Leah’s twin, is much more passive, but not in Orleanna’s way. The girl is mute and limping. For her age she developed quite a cynical worldview, observing the world with a cold interest of a scientist. She knows that most of the joys are just not meant for her. The little Ruth May takes everything as a great adventure.

Their new home shocks everyone of the newcomers. It lacks the minimal comfort they got used to. The inheritance of the previous priest is very scarce: the old house, a talking parrot named Methuselah (who knows countless profanities) and Mama Tataba, the local woman hired as a servant to help with the housekeeping.

The whole family is sure that their knowledge, culture and Christian virtues will make their task relatively easy. But when they come to Kilanga, Nathan sees that people has their own culture and don’t want to change it. It may be inferior from the white man’s point of view, but still it is theirs. At first Nathan decides to plant a European style garden to both grow food to his family, show off the white superiority and then teach the locals the basics of agriculture to let them also grow plenty of food. But soon it backfires. The vegetables and fruits grow fast from the seeds Nathan brought with him, but his lush garden is barren - the local insects are not used for such flowers and avoid it, leaving everything in the garden not pollinated. So instead of appearing as wise teacher Nathan becomes an object of silent mockery. His garden is a symbol of his equally fruitless attempts to convert locals to Christianity.

The first cracks in their confidence that baptizing the whole Kilanga will be easy start to appear after the talks to Mama Tataba. She tells to Nathan the same thing she repeated to the previous priest named Brother Fowles. The cannibal crocodiles in the river ate too many people and the locals absolutely rightfully think that going to the river during the baptism ritual is a suicide. Nathan is pressing her too hard, ignoring the common sense she uses to prove her point. Mama Tataba’s patience is soon over and she leaves the house, angrily telling off Nathan for desire to kill her people for his stupid rituals.

The rest of Nathan’s family is much more ready to accept the local culture. At first they have a culture shock, but later they understand that women with bare breast that walk around are just the same kind of wives and daughters as they are themselves. Orleanna and her daughters observe the ways the local women keep their house and, initially left helpless without Mama Tataba, they soon are able to manage the household African way by themselves. Ruth May, who is almost not involved in the chores, adapts best of all. Soon she is already playing with local children teaching them her games and learning theirs.

But the relationships between Nathan and the villagers become more and more strained. The priest is very persistent in his desire to baptize them, deliberately ignoring local customs and traditions. An English-speaking African named Anatole, who is also the local schoolteacher, tries to apply some diplomacy. He comes to Nathan’s house and politely explains the position of Kilanga’s chief named Tata Ndu. Tata Ndu fears that Christian faith will change the morals of his people from what they used to portray as right and noble to something uncommon to them. But instead of finally asking about the current religious life of the locals and their moral principles, Nathan angrily throws Anatole out of his house.

In the meantime the girls are suffering from adaptation to the new life and new land. Anatole and Nelson - a local boy who replaced Mama Tataba as a helper in the house teach Leah the traditional way to hunt and the previously zealous girl becomes a promising huntress - but once she almost gets eaten by a lion. Ruth May breaks her arm while playing and Nathan has to take her to the doctor in the nearest town. The doctor tells him the latest news: Congo is ready to declare independence from Belgium, its metropoly. He strongly advises Nathan to take his family and leave immediately before the war starts. But the priest ignores this warning too, returning to his mission.

The misfortunes of the family only start from here. Ruth May contracts malaria and doesn’t seem to get better soon. The Underdowns that invited Nathan to Congo alarm him that the country indeed is going to declare its independence and until they do it and elect their own leader, everyone who values their life needs to evacuate immediately. The Underdowns preserve place for Nathan and his family on a ship, but he openly refuses that his wife and children go there and escape. Hearing this, Orleanna silently returns home and falls to her bed in deep apathy. For a long time she doesn’t stand up from the bed, indifferent to everything that is going on around. The three older girls now have to keep the house by themselves. It is very hard, the African house requires lots of manual labor they are not used to. Without their mother they have a hard time, but still manage to keep the house whole until Orleanna gets better.

It takes several weeks for her to recover - but when she does, Orleanna is no more an obedient and passive wife. She harshly talks to Nathan and, seeing that he is ready to sacrifice not only himself but them all for the sake of his goal, decides to take away the children no matter what.

Orleanna finds a pilot named Eeben Axelroot and tries to bribe him and persuade to take herself and the girls to the civilization. He is ready to help but he wants cash first and Orleanna doesn’t have access to the family budget.

Meanwhile the famine strikes the village. A horrible drought kills all the plants and the locals are starving. Strange enough, but the village chief, who wasn’t Nathan’s best friend, starts supporting the family with meat and best of food he can give them. Nathan at first takes it as chief’s attempt to apologize and show his desire to accept Christianity, but later (he would get it at once if he bothered to study local culture) Nathan learned that Tata Ndu tries to buy Rachel as his wife. Rachel tries to behave as disgusting as possible to repel the unwanted suitor, but the chief doesn’t care. Horrified, Nathan finally starts learning the local customs and, understanding that the danger is real, asks the same pilot to pretend that he and Rachel are engaged. Eeben agrees and it seems a relief for the whole family, because Tata Ndu stops his advances - but gradually Rachel, still as beautiful and charming as before, is caught in the real relationship with a much more experienced man who just knows how to court girls.

Another love story in the family starts between Leah and Anatole. Anatole continues to teach the girl hunting, despite her initial misfortune, and she slowly falls in love with local culture and Anatole himself. When he tells her that the villagers are preparing for the big hunt and makes her a bow so that the girl also can participate, Leah finally confesses to him that she loves him. The girl changes drastically, from a zealous idealist she becomes a courageous but still tender and empathic young woman who deeply feels the world around her and is capable of sincere and strong feelings even despite she is only fourteen.

After the long illness Ruth May finally recovers - but she is nothing like a lively girl she was before. Ruth May is pale and still appears sick. She almost doesn’t play and run, preferring sitting in the house or near it and observing the world, just like Adah does. Adah, by the way, is still the observer. Mute, but not deaf, she falls in love with local language and nature. She studies words and rare African insects with the same curiosity. Despite she lacks social connections, the girl seems genuinely happy, like she didn’t notice everything that happened around her family before. But of course, Adah notices everything and has her own opinion about it - she just can’t vocalize it.

The things get from bad to worse: Congo finally declares its independence and that very day Methuselah is eaten by local animals. He was an old swearing parrot but the family got attached to him already and this event also hits most of them hard. Then the swarm of red ants attack the village, eating out all the scarce food Kilanga had left. The family has to escape to the river (with crocodiles, remember?) to evade the fate of being eaten alive by the insects. Sick Ruth May and limping Adah are left behind and Orleanna, who is capable to carry only one child, takes Ruth May. Adah makes it to the river, despite she is heavily bitten. Her mother’s choice leaves her even more jaded and embittered than before.

Now the great hunt is an essential event for the village to survive. Leah, supported by Anatole and Nelson, informs the chief that she wants to participate too and proves her archery skills. The question is put on vote and most villagers vote for Leah - they need every hunter they have to provide meet for the village. But still Tata Ndu and local shaman named Tata Kuwundu are strongly against her hunting. Tata Kuwundu goes as far as saying that if a woman decides to do man’s job thus violating the order of nature, the nature will punish her. Anatole and Nelson are visibly horrified by this.

The next night Anatole finds a sign of curse near his hut - and wakes up in the morning with a poisonous snake on his bed. He is almost sure that Tata Kuwundu tries to frighten him, because it was he who taught Leah as a huntress. He doesn’t tell Leah or others, deciding not to distract them from hunt. The hunt begins and Leah performs perfectly, in her fourteen she hunts more animals than some of the grown up men. The villagers congratulate her. That enrages Tata Kuwundu even more.

At night after the hunt Nelson, who usually lives in the coop nearby, runs to their house pleading Nathan for shelter. He also saw a curse sign near his hut and is afraid that he will be killed at night. Nathan refuses (like we expected something else!) but the girls decide to help Nelson as much as they can and see who tries to frighten them. They cover the ground around with ash to see the footprints left by the offender. At the morning they see the footprints with six toes around - the unique ones that can belong only to Tata Kuwundu. When the girls enter the coop, they see a snake. Nelson pokes it with a stick and shoos it away, but when it seems that everyone is out of danger, the snake suddenly bites Ruth May before leaving the coop. The girl succumbs and dies in the arms of her sister in mere minutes.

All the family is shocked by what happened. Except Nathan of course. Orleanna bathes her daughter’s body and prepares her for the funeral. The local women come to express their sorrow, crying together with her and her daughters. Their kids, who used to play with Ruth May also come, mourning a dead friend. A tropical rain starts and Nathan goes outside to baptize local kids in the falling water. But they don’t want to listen to him, they arrange their own mourning ritual, playing the game the deceased Ruth May taught them - to honor her memory.

It is enough for Orleanna. The very next night she secretly takes her daughters and they leave the house, walking the unsafe road going through the jungle, under pouring tropical rains to the nearest town. Leah becomes too ill - she also contracts malaria - so Orleanna has to leave her behind. Anatole promises to hide her and care for her until she is healthy enough to follow her mother and sisters. Axelroot comes for Rachel and takes her out of Africa. Orleanna and Adah have to go to Belgian embassy and ask for a refuge. But everything goes fine and they are safely returned to America.

Rachel lives with Axelroot for some time. She remarries thrice in her life, always being the stunningly elegant and charming woman. Her third husband bequeaths her a luxurious hotel she manages all the rest of her life, having enough profit to live in luxury.

Adah becomes completely disappointed with religion and devotes herself to science. She enrolls in a medical college, later undergoes an experimental therapy that cures her limp and returns to Africa as a famous infectionist. Adah participates in the discovery of AIDS and inventing some of the essential vaccines from tropical diseases.

Leah leaves with Anatole. She is so charmed by kindness and tenderness he shows when she is ill that she just can’t leave him anymore. Soon they marry and have four kids. The couple tries to fight against the corrupted regime in Congo, but after Anatole is imprisoned twice, they both understand that their efforts are futile and move to Angola where they peacefully live their life in the agricultural commune. Some years ago Brother Fowles, the previous priest from Kilanga finds them and tells them that the locals burned Nathan alive, accusing him of sending people to the river where they were eaten by crocodiles.

Orleanna lives in America, never letting go of her guilt about Ruth May’s death. The thoughts of her deceased daughter constantly haunt the poor woman. She joins the Civil Rights Movement to soothe her pain and forget about it, though temporarily. But when she and Adah return to Congo, Orleanna suddenly feels relief and understands that her daughter is here and she is forgiven.

The spirit of Ruth May concludes the story. She stays in the forests of Congo as a spirit, watching the lives of her family, hoping that their scars will heal and they will be able to move on. When her mother returns to Africa, Ruth May can finally let Orleanna feel her and understand that she is long forgiven.