The Poisonwood Bible: Novel Summary:BOOK 1: GENESIS
Orleanna Price, Sanderling Island, Georgia
Summary: Looking back late in her life on her years in Africa as a missionary’s wife, Orleanna Price remembers taking her four daughters on a picnic in the jungle. She recalls seeing an okapi, an animal long believed by Europeans to be as legendary as the unicorn, on the river bank.
Analysis: Kingsolver begins Book One of her novel, “Genesis,” by citing Gen. 1:28, in which God charges the first human beings to exercise “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures. This epigraph raises readers’ expectations that one theme of The Poisonwood Bible will be that of dominion: what is it, and is it the same as or different from domination? In this brief, opening chapter, Orleanna Price, wife of a Southern Baptist missionary to the Congo in the 1960s, begins reflecting on the West’s long history of conquest, colonization and exploitation of Africa, as well as her own complicity in it. She resolutely refuses to take the easy road of “point[ing] at other men, conveniently dead” (p. 9), as the sole perpetrators of violence against that continent. At the same time, she hints that she, too, is a victim. “Maybe I’ll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I’ll insist that I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror’s wife, if not a conquest herself? For that matter, what is he?” (p. 9). Orleanna is claiming that a complex, systemic evil binds together the conquerors and the conquered; and that while she is not wholly blameless for her part in that system, neither is she wholly culpable. “I trod on Africa without a single thought,” she admits; yet also she “paid [her] own little part in blood,” thus distinguishing her from others who “wear” the freedom and prosperity of white Westerners lightly (p. 9). Orleanna will be presenting the testimony of her own life in all its complexity, for that is all she has to speak: “One has only a life of one’s own” (p. 8).
The “Dr. Livingstone” to whom Orleanna alludes is 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who spent over three decades in Africa and is best remembered for discovering (at least from a Western perspective) Victoria Falls (named, of course, for Queen Victoria; and thus a name that reflects Western imperial ambitions). From Orleanna’s point of view, now far removed from her African sojourn in time and space, Livingstone seems to be but one of the many men who exploited the continent, even if he did so in the name of faith. Because of people like Livingstone, foreigners like Orleanna “walked across Africa with [their] wrists unshackled…. walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods” (p. 9). In contrast, the okapi represents Africa as it was before Western incursions—and, perhaps, as it still is (for Orleanna) at its heart. The okapi, as a representative of Africa, assumes some of the mythic properties of the fanciful beast some Westerners mistook it for, the “unicorn that could look you in the eye” (p. 8). According to legend, the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin; normally difficult to subdue, the unicorn would approach a virgin to lay its head in her lap. The unicorn thus became a beast symbolic of innocence and purity. Given that Orleanna seems to have, at best, a mixed view of her own innocence regarding Africa—a blending of seeing herself as both conqueror and conquest—readers must wait to see to what extent this okapi, this unicorn, this “Africa unconquered altogether” (p. 7), approached her during her time there. As Orleanna herself tells her audience: “Later on you’ll have to decide what sympathy [she and her daughters] deserve” (p. 5).
“The Things We Carried, Kilanga, 1959”
Summary: The Price family—Rev. Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna and their four daughters: eldest Rachel Rebeccah, about to turn fifteen (“going on sixteen”) years old; twins Leah (who is gifted) and Adah (who, as we will learn in a later chapter, lives with Hemiplegia and is physically challenged), fourteen years old; and “baby sister” Ruth May, five years old—leave Bethlehem, Georgia and fly to Kilanga in the Belgian Congo to embark upon a year-long evangelical mission. Mrs. Price and the girls get around the airline’s per-person weight limit by smuggling beneath their clothes not only several other items of clothing but also various household items they think they will need while in Africa. The family is welcomed at the airport by the Rev. Frank and Mrs. Janna Underdown, Episcopalians from America (although Leah initially believes them to be Baptists, and does not know their actual names: “their real name is actually something foreign like On-tray-don,” p. 159); and they are flown from there on another plane to Kilanga by a pilot who (we later learn) is named Eeben Axelroot.
Analysis: This chapter introduces us to the Price girls, seen through the eyes of Leah, one of the middle twins. All four girls bear biblical names, not inappropriate for a preacher’s daughters. (The Rev. Price himself also bears a name from Scripture, although we have not yet learned at this point in the novel: Nathan was the prophet who confronted King David with God’s judgment against him after the king’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba; see 2 Sam. 12. Only Orleanna price does not carry a biblical name; her name seems derived from the French word for “golden,” but in this exact form it may be unique to Kingsolver’s novel.) In the Bible, Leah was the eldest daughter of Laban, the uncle of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. Where Kingsolver’s Leah is the younger sister of a Rachel (even though, as Leah tells us, her sister chooses to identify more with the source of her middle name, Rebekah, “who is said in Genesis to be ‘a damsel very fair,’” p. 15; see Gen. 24:16—although the Bible also states that Rachel is beautiful, Gen. 29:17), the biblical Leah was older than her sister Rachel; therefore, when Jacob contracted to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry his daughter Rachel, Laban tricked him and gave Leah to Jacob first. Jacob had to work another seven years to win Rachel’s hand in marriage (see Gen. 29). Readers will have to note whether rivalry exists or develops between Kingsolver’s Leah and Rachel as it does between their scriptural namesakes; already, we sense that Leah disapproves of Rachel in some respects. Note how Leah criticizes Rachel for being “worldly and tiresome” (p. 16); she says Rachel’s secretive painting of her nails before the family leaves America suits “Rachel to a T, trying to work in just one last sin before leaving civilization” (p. 16). For her part, Leah at this point seems not altogether opposed to the idea of the mission trip: although she acknowledges physical and cultural discomfort at the transition to the poor (and fictional) village of Kilanga, she also seems somewhat excited. The American couple the Underwoods warn the Prices “not to expect much” of the village, but Leah “expected everything: jungle flowers, wild roaring beasts, God’s Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory” (p. 17). Readers cannot miss, however, the condescension in that remark. Leah’s excitement may prove to be aroused more by a romantic and paternalistic Western view toward “the dark continent” and its so-called “savages” rather than a true understanding of and love for Africa and its people. To that extent, Leah may prove true to her biblical namesake in another regard, for the biblical Leah had “weak eyes” (Gen. 29:17). Kingsolver’s Leah may have “weak eyes” in the sense of a weak vision for the truth of Africa. Her use of the phrase “God’s Kingdom” recalls her mother’s similar turn of phrase in the first chapter, where Orleanna states that she has learned the truth about Africa: it “shifts under [one’s] hands, refusing to be party to failed relations. Refusing to be any place at all, or any thing but itself: the animal kingdom making hay in the kingdom of glory” (p. 10). At this point, Leah (to be fair, probably no more or less than the rest of the family) is not seeing Africa as it really is.
This chapter contains humorous descriptions of how Orleanna and her daughters smuggle supposed necessaries from the Western world to Africa on their persons, starting with the amusing incongruity of the first sentence: “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle” (p. 13). Ironically, this Christian missionary family’s clinging to material possessions is the opposite of what Christ, in Scripture, commanded of his missionaries: “Take no gold, no silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…” (Matt. 9:9-10). Jesus instructs his messengers, in other words, to depend upon him alone—as Leah says, wryly, “the Word of God… fortunately weighs nothing” (p. 19)—but the Price family either cannot or will not do so (note the obvious monetary connotation of their surname). Orleanna and the girls are obliged to leave some things behind at the airport; notably, however, Nathan leaves nothing, “suggesting only that [his wife and daughters] consider the lilies of the field”—an allusion to Matt. 6:28-30, in which Jesus urges followers not to worry about physical possessions—“which have no need of a hand mirror or aspirin tablets” (p. 14). Orleanna, however, is determined that her daughters will have “[t]he bare minimum” (p. 13—cf. her assertion in the first chapter, “Always there [was] someone hungrier than [my] own children,” p. 6). Nathan Price seems to have a hypocritical double standard, no doubt justified in his mind because he sees himself as—as he prays on the plane that carries them from the airport to Kilanga—“a powerful instrument of [God’s] perfect will” (p. 18). The fact that the family is weighed down with secret material goods even as Leah professes a “total and complete lack of gifts… for the African children” at the airport (p. 17) is ironic. Additionally, the family’s inability to leave the Western world behind illustrates the extent to which the family does not see the truth of Africa, and is not yet willing or able to engage Africa on its own terms. “Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport?” Leah asks (p. 14)—and yet life inevitably entails limits. Readers will want to note what limits the Price family runs up against in their African sojourn, and how the various characters respond. The “modern jet-age” belief in no limits may prove to be a vain hope. To her credit, however, Leah’s vision may already be sharpening: as she surveys what they have brought with them near the chapter’s beginning, she remarks that their “supplies from home seem to represent a bygone world” (p. 14). Kingsolver may be planting hints of how Africa will change Leah.