This book is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The novel starts out in 1959 as a Baptist preacher takes his family to live in the Congo so they can be missionaries. Interestingly enough, the entire story takes place from the point of view of his wife and four daughters, and not the preacher. I believe this novel is supposed to be a modern-day retelling of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a classic that takes place in 19th century colonized Congo. They share very similar themes of individuals trying to "colonize" the land, but the jungle is so wild that it ends up changing them forever, claiming them, or driving them mad. They learn in the end that Africa will never play by their Western rules.
Kingsolver's novel, however, is not nearly as dark as Conrad's, so don't be too afraid there. It's also interesting to note that Heart of Darkness had hardly any women in it, but Kingsolver's book is not only from the perspective of women, but often concentrates on the role of women in both the tribe they are living with and the American society back home. I almost see this book as a sort of sequel to Heart of Darkness, and I think it would be very effective reading for maybe a high school AP history class (because you have the original effects of colonization, then the lasting effects up to the 1980s).
I loved this book and recommend it to anyone. I finished it in about a week, which says a lot because it is over 500 pages. I will say that the end dragged on a long time. You'd think it would've ended about 200 pages earlier, where the climax was, but it just kept going. The end also gets very contemplative and preachy. I think Kingsolver really wanted this novel to touch in our modern times, to relate to the reader in some way. I'm not really sure because I wasn't around in the 80s, so I had no idea what was going on in the Congo back then (come to think of it, I don't even know what's going on there right now ...).
I did find this book pretty easy to relate to in certain ways. It does make you think about real Christianity ("There are Christians and then there are Christians," the novel says at some point). I think the novel does ask you to think about what circumstances would change you. I think it definitely smacks you over the head with our own white, American privilege, and wants us to be aware that our lives are so vastly different from people living in Africa (or other places like it). And really, I appreciate that. I mean, the least we can do is be aware of our privilege.
Also interesting: although the novel talks a lot about Western vs. African privilege, it rarely goes near the issues of race and the discriminations that existed. You'd think it would do that more, but I think the point Kingsolver is trying to bring across is about humanity in general, and not the differences we have. I think she did that extremely well.
To end with: it was beautifully written, with an engaging story and very round, likable characters. Go put it on your list.