In the present day, Orleanna Price reflects upon her time in Africa, remembering walking single-file through the forest with her daughters to have a picnic on a stream bank. The forest is not only filled with life, it is alive. The huge columns of trees vibrate with animals and vegetation, and Orleanna and her daughters seem like "pale, doomed blossoms" amidst the wild beauty. Alone for a moment by the stream, Orleanna spots an okapi — a type of gazelle — across the water. Her gaze locks with the animal's for a moment, and then it is gone.
As she remembers this moment and her time in Africa, Orleanna is not simply reminiscing; she is speaking to one of her children, although she doesn't specify which one. She asks to be judged, and implies that the child to whom she is speaking is dead and haunts her. Her request for judgment is also a request for peace from her child's restless spirit and from her own troubled memories.
In 1959, the Price family prepares for its year-long missionary trip to Africa. Restricted to carrying only 44 pounds of luggage apiece, the Price women struggle to decide which items to take with them. Finding a loophole in the restriction, they end up smuggling extra items, such as boxes of cake mix and tools, under the multiple layers of clothes they are wearing.
When they arrive in Africa, they are greeted by the Underdowns, a missionary couple who once lived in Kilanga, the village at which the Prices will be stationed. The Underdowns explain that Kilanga once had a thriving mission, with four American families, a church, a school, and a doctor who visited regularly. However, over the years the mission diminished, and it has now been reduced to one family — the Prices.
The residents of Kilanga herald the Price family's arrival with singing, dancing, and a feast of goat stew. As Orleanna and her daughters try to take in the onslaught of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells, Nathan immediately focuses on the nakedness of some of the women and launches into an angry sermon about their sinfulness. The celebratory atmosphere dies with his speech, and as the villagers begin to disperse, the Price girls try to choke down the goat stew.
The Price's new residence consists of a three-room house (with a front room and two bedrooms), a separate kitchen behind the house, a latrine, and a chicken house. Within the house are furniture, books, and kitchenware from previous missionaries, as well as an African grey parrot named Methuselah, who lives in a large bamboo cage and annoys Nathan with his cursing. As the family settles into their new home, they observe — and are observed by — their neighbors. The girls are fascinated by the villagers' homes, habits, and clothing, and the villagers are curious about the Prices as well. At first, the girls stay indoors, afraid to venture too far from the security of the house. Not only are the people of Kilanga strange to them, but the untamed jungle wilderness of the Congo is also daunting. Leah, however, prefers the outdoors to housework and helps her father plant a garden with the seeds he brought from home. Leah idolizes her father and works hard to please him. Absorbed with his own agenda, however, Nathan does not appreciate or even notice Leah's adoration.
As Leah and Nathan plant their garden, Mama Tataba — their housekeeper — informs them that they need to make hills for the seeds rather than simply planting them in the flat earth. Nathan takes offense to her advice and also ignores her comment that the poisonwood plant he is handling will hurt him. The next day, Nathan wakes up with a painful rash on his hands, arm, and eye, where the poisonwood sap touched him. A few weeks later, heavy rains fall and wash out the garden. After the rains cease, Nathan replants the garden, this time shaping the garden into the flood-proof hills that Mama Tataba suggested.
Meanwhile, Nathan has begun preaching Christianity to the Kilangans. His Sunday church services are sparsely attended, so he decides to stage an Easter Sunday in July. Nathan desperately wants to have a grand baptism in the river, but the villagers strongly oppose the idea. Consequently, Nathan decides to instead have a picnic by the river after the "Easter" church service. For the picnic, Orleanna kills and fries much of the large flock of chickens that came with the chicken house. While Nathan gloomily stares out at the river during the picnic, Orleanna helps to create a festive atmosphere as she moves throughout the crowd offering the villagers fried chicken.
Despite her success with the church picnic, Orleanna finds it hard to adjust to her new life. Without modern household appliances, tasks such as cooking and cleaning present challenges she had not anticipated. These tasks are made even more difficult by the humidity, insects, animals, and potential diseases that thrive in the Congo's climate. Mama Tataba's assistance in everyday chores is invaluable.
Nathan is not finding life in Africa to be exactly as he envisioned it either. For example, although the plants in his garden are flourishing, they are not yielding any food. He finally realizes that the insects needed to pollinate the plants don't exist in Africa. As a result, no matter how much the plants may grow and flower, they will never bear the vegetables he had hoped for.
Nathan's other project — baptizing the villagers — is also proving to be unsuccessful. One Sunday, after a long sermon about baptism, Mama Tataba lectures Nathan about his obsession with dunking the Kilangans in the river. She tells him that the villagers refuse to go into the river because a girl from the village was killed in the river by a crocodile the previous year. After her confrontation with Nathan, Mama Tataba quits and leaves the village. Irritated and angry, Nathan takes his frustrations out on Methuselah, removing the parrot from its cage and hurling it into the trees.
The first thing one notices about The Poisonwood Bible is that the story is told from the perspectives of the five main women in the novel — Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May — giving readers more than one viewpoint. Note how carefully Kingsolver differentiates each character's voice; she quickly establishes the distinctive personalities and perspectives of these five characters. Orleanna, who speaks only in the present, is trapped in the past. Her experiences in Africa haunt her, and she seeks absolution from one of her children. Rachel, the oldest daughter, appears to be a typical American teenager. She speaks in clichés and is self-centered and opportunistic. Beneath her superficiality, however, she possesses a keen eye for the absurd. Leah, the older of the twins, shares her father's faith and is open to the new experiences of the Congo. Eager to please, she displays an earnest sense of right and wrong. Her twin, Adah, on the other hand, defines herself by her disability. Adah is analytical and cynical — the opposite of Leah. As shown by her love of palindromes and reading sentences forward and backward, Adah examines life from all angles, sometimes seeing things that others overlook. The youngest daughter, Ruth May, is full of questions. She views the world through a child's eyes, making observations that are colored both by her religious upbringing and by her innocence.
Readers may wonder why Kingsolver does not give Nathan a chance to speak and present his viewpoint on the events that occur, given that he first appears to be so central to the story. As the novel progresses, Kingsolver's choice regarding Nathan will become clearer. Although Nathan sets events in motion, he should not be considered the central character. The novel is more concerned with his family's reactions to his actions rather than with his actions themselves.
In addition to recognizing different points of view in the novel, keep in mind that Kingsolver uses the Prices' experiences to tell the larger story of life in the Congo. Kingsolver explains, "This book is a political allegory, in which the small incidents of characters' lives shed light on larger events in our world." In other words, although the Price family's story is a rich one, the novel becomes even richer when the Price family's story is read in the context of the political backdrop that Kingsolver establishes. Consequently, to fully understand The Poisonwood Bible, readers must not ignore the political events discussed in the novel.
In this, the first book of the novel, Kingsolver establishes key points regarding Nathan and his family's relationships with the villagers. Take, for example, the two feasts described in this section. The first feast, given by the villagers to greet the Prices, begins festively. The villagers are receptive to the family and want them to feel welcome. Rather than taking this opportunity to establish a friendly relationship with the Kilangans, however, Nathan fixates on sinfulness and berates the villagers for their displays of nakedness, thus displaying his own ignorance and arrogance. Nathan cares only for his own view of the world; right and wrong are as clear to him as are the words in his Bible. Nathan has sensitivity neither to the villagers' cultural norms nor to their feelings when he — a newcomer and guest — insults them. As a result, the feast ends with a subdued air and relations between the Prices and the Kilangans are off to a bad start.
Nathan's inflexibility ruins an opportunity to repair his damaged relationships with the villagers at the second feast in this section — the Easter Sunday picnic. He fails to appreciate not only the Kilangan's willingness to socialize, but also the asset he has in his friendly and conscientious wife. Nathan's narrow view of the world allows him to see only that the river in front of him is empty of the villagers he wants to baptize; he ignores the sight of Orleanna's winning over the crowd.