In Kikongo, the language of the people of Kilanga, the word bängala has three meanings: most precious, most insufferable, or poisonwood. In the Congolese context, opposites are necessarily bound forever in definition; nothing can exist without its antithesis. The righteous and the heathen, the foreign and the familiar, devastation and redemption -- each half is a component of the whole, relevant only by comparison. The Price family, arriving in the Congo in 1959 to fulfill Reverend Nathan Price's evangelical mission, comes to understand that what they hold most dear can also be what they despise the most; the thing closest to their hearts can also be poison.
Through the voices of four sisters and their mother, the story of the Price family's tragic destruction is juxtaposed with the political disintegration of the Congo itself from a colonized territory to an autonomous democracy to a nation run by a CIA- installed dictator. As Nathan's attempts to save both himself and the Congolese "heathens" become all-consuming, the Price women struggle to find their own brand of freedom. Through the hardships suffered at the hands of Africa's powerful natural forces, politicians both in the village and around the world, and even those they hold closest to their hearts, each woman eventually finds her own way to liberation. Much like the Kikongo word bängala, "liberation" for the Price women has multiple -- and contradictory -- meanings. Whether through an outright rejection of the Congolese culture or a redefinition of "home," each ultimately regains the autonomy denied her in her forced relocation to Africa.
Kingsolver depicts the Congolese culture with a measure of respect not often seen in fictional novels written by foreign authors, and sets an important example for today's global community -- a world in which fluid borders and technological advances make intercultural exchanges inevitable. With The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has created an intelligent and powerful story about the tensions between love and hate, destruction and redemption, nation and nation, man and woman, and nature and beast -- and the women who learn to understand and embrace these tensions.