The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Flamingo, 546 pp.; $26, hardcover). Reviewed by Tim Stafford.

Missionaries have inspired two kinds of imaginative writing. One is the admiring and sometimes hagiographic missionary biography, once so popular with evangelical Christians. The other is the missionary-villain morality tale developed by Herman Melville in his 1846 novel Typee and further popularized in James Michener's Hawaii and the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In one kind of writing, the humble missionary brings love and light to dark places; in the other, conceited and ignorant missionaries unthinkingly despoil a tropical Eden. They are opposite approaches, but they share a belief that great issues are at stake in missions-issues larger than the lives of the individuals involved.

Barbara Kingsolver's grand and tragic story of the Price family falls into the second category of missionary writing. The year is 1959. Baptist Nathan Price drags his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to fulfill his dream of missionary service. (He has been rejected repeatedly by the mission board, but persistence pays off.) We soon see that the Prices are ill-prepared for the challenges they face at Kilanga, their remote jungle station. Nothing works the way it would at home; even the American seeds they brought for a vegetable garden grow wrong.

The five Price females tell this story, each through her own finely wrought, distinctive voice. Particularly delightful is Rachel, a proto-Valley Girl who can't stand the Congo's dirt and inconvenience and talks in a hilarious series of gum-chewing malapropisms. Years later when her super-serious sister Leah returns from years in Africa, she describes American grocery ...

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