The Poisonwood Bible: Novel Summary:BOOK 1:part 2
Ruth May Price
Summary: Ruth shares her apprehensions about the family’s journey to Africa, including the fear that they will be boiled alive in a pot by cannibals, and repeats the commonly held (though biblically inaccurate) belief that the Africans are “the Tribes of Ham,” descended from Noah’s disobedient, cursed son.
Analysis: Ruth’s brief chapter repeats the prejudiced racial theology that used to be commonly held by white Christians (and, sadly, is still rampant in some quarters): that white mistreatment, oppression and exploitation of blacks finds scriptural warrant in Noah’s cursing of his son Ham (see Gen. 9:20-27). It also, however, introduces the fact that Ruth identifies to some degree with Ham: “Ham was the youngest one, like me, and he was bad. Sometimes I am bad, too” (p. 20). Ruth’s actual biblical namesake, the heroine of the book of Ruth, is sometimes remembered as a woman of questionable sexual morality: not only is she a foreigner (a Moabite), but also she is quite forward with her eventual husband, Boaz. On the other hand, Ruth is also often presented as a model of loyalty and love (witness her famous declaration to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” Ruth 1:16), and is remembered by the evangelist Matthew as an ancestor of Jesus (1:5). Kingsolver’s Ruth, therefore, has an ambiguous biblical namesake—appropriate for a girl who claims to be “bad sometimes.” She is, at any rate, a product of the segregated American South, quite aware of the different standards for whites and blacks and unquestioningly accepting of it: “The man in church said they’re different from us and needs ought to keep to their own. Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws” (p. 20).
Intriguingly, this “sometimes bad” girl identifies her older sister Adah (Leah’s twin) as “bad on one whole side” (p. 21)—a reference to Adah’s physical and mental disability (later revealed to be Hemiplegia) but also a moral judgment. Ruth believes that Adah “hates us all” and, implicitly, loves the Devil (“You are only supposed to hate the Devil, and love everyone else,” p. 21—even though Ruth, a child of the segregated Deep South, seems to have no love for “the Tribes of Ham”). Ruth’s prejudice may not be limited toward those who are different ethnically; it may also extend to those who are physically and mentally different, even if that category includes her own sister. On the other hand, Ruth is, of course, only five years old, and would naturally absorb and repeat many of the attitudes and opinions of her family. Readers can only hope she will grow beyond them as she grows older.
Summary: On their first night in Kilanga, the Prices are ushered to a feast in their honor at the mud-and-brick church building. Rachel is shocked by the raucous singing and dancing of the bare-chested village women; she doesn’t care for the goat meat stew they are served, either. Through an English-speaking translator, a village elder calls upon the Rev. Price to offer a blessing over the meal. Instead, Price delivers a brief but powerful jeremiad against dark places of sin, praying that “the worthy” of Kilanga will be led into God’s light. Price’s sermon/prayer has the effect of subduing the festival atmosphere. Rachel cries at the thought of spending the next year in Kilanga.
Analysis: Rachel’s first chapter shows her to be apparently as “worldly” as Leah believes her to be. As she had on the plane trip from America (see p. 16), Rachel invokes American “pop culture” (by quoting the Dial soap advertising slogan, p. 22). She wishes they had brought Listerine, complete with a recitation of that product’s advertising claims. She worries about the fate of her luggage in the midst of the “heathen pandemony” of the feast at the church (p. 23—and any sense of irony at calling a church gathering “heathen” is, it seems, lost on her). She is “heavy-hearted in [her] soul for the flush commodes and machine-washed clothes and other simple things in life [she took] for granite” (p. 23)—a sentiment that is, incidentally, but one example of her penchant for malapropisms (the “ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound,” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin); another especially enjoyable instance in this chapter (Kingsolver demonstrates a real knack for creating them) is the reference to “giving up the goat” (as opposed to “giving up the ghost,” p. 23). Rachel thoroughly disapproves of the villagers’ behavior: she claims that worship is “not on the docket” at the church (p. 23), even though the women are singing “songs… [that] followed the tunes of Christian hymns” (p. 24); because the hymns have been (presumably) translated into the Kilangans’ native tongue, Rachel can only hear them as “weird” (p. 24) and “a good long hootenanny of so-called hymns” (p. 25). She is so completely outside of her comfort zone that she weeps—“I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore” (p. 29). She does not seem to share any strong identity with her biblical namesake, although, like Rebekah, the biblical Rachel is also said to be beautiful (Gen. 29:17; cf. p. 15). Perhaps Kingsolver means the name to evoke the fact that Rachel was the favored one: Jacob loved her, not Leah, even though Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah first. The Bible tells us little about her but makes clear that, although “socially inferior as the younger sister and chronologically second to marry, and despite her persistent barrenness, Rachel always enjoyed her husband’s love and preferential treatment” (Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, ed. Geoffrey Wigoder, Jerusalem Publishing House). Certainly, the novel’s Rachel has heretofore enjoyed a lifestyle of comfort and preferential treatment, a lifestyle now—as even she realizes—about to face a strong challenge in Kilanga.
Summary: Affected by hemiplegia and dismissed by her doctors as incapable of ever being able to speak, Adah somehow shares her poetic observations of life in Kilanga with readers.
Analysis: We do not know whether we are reading something Adah has written or if, through the magic of storytelling, we are simply now privy to Adah’s inner thoughts (the latter seems more likely), but this chapter does introduce us to a remarkable young woman. Like her sisters, Adah has a biblical namesake, although the biblical Adah is not a notable character. In fact, the Bible mentions two women named Adah: the first of Lamech’s two wives (Gen. 4:19-23); and the wife of Esau (Gen. 36:4). Perhaps Kingsolver’s Adah has been named for the second, since the motif of Esau and his twin brother Jacob wrestling in their mother Rebekah’s womb (Gen. 25:19-26) informs Adah’s perception of her relationship with twin sister Leah: “Oh, I can easily imagine the fetal mishap: we were inside the womb together dum-de-dum when Leah suddenly turned and declared, Adah, you are just too slow. I am taking all the nourishment here and going on ahead. She grew strong as I grew weak. (Yes! Jesus loves me!) And so it came to pass, in the Eden of our mother’s womb, I was cannibalized by my sister” (p. 34). This striking passage suggests that Leah has not stopped “cannibalizing” Adah since birth, either (a judgment readers must find evidence to support as the novel continues). This “reading” of the sisters’ struggles in utero casts Adah in the role of the biblical Esau, the twin who is taken advantage of by the headstrong sibling. The ironic quotation of the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me” (referencing its lyric, “Little ones to him belong, / They are weak but he is strong”) may also reveal something of Adah’s thoughts on God. Does she blame God for her condition as much as she blames Leah?
This question of Adah’s relationship to God is further complicated by the fact that Adah uses explicitly theological language in reference to Nathan Price. She refers to him (six times in this chapter alone) as “Our Father.” It is a factual statement about Nathan’s relationship to the four Price girls, of course, but its capitalization and litany-like repetition cannot help but evoke the Christian Pater Noster, or Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” Readers may suspect, however, that rather than conflating Nathan with God, Adah is using the title ironically, as perhaps she also does the title “the Reverend”: “I am sure the Reverend explained to his exhausted wife that [Adah’s condition] was the will of God…” (p. 34). When jestingly (and cruelly) describing Adah’s situation as “God’s Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees” (p. 34), Nathan is not worthy of reverence, which is the literal meaning of the adjective “reverend.” Nathan presents himself to the world in a certain way, but Adah sees the truth.
In his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Quill, 2003), Thomas C. Foster writes, “[M]ore often than not physical markings [in literary characters] by their very nature call attention to themselves and signify some psychological or thematic point the writer wants to make” (p. 200). Kingsolver has marked Adah both physically and mentally. “My right side drags. I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood…” (p. 33). Doctors have offered various diagnoses of Adah’s “asymmetrical brain” (p. 34)—including Wernicke’s (or receptive) aphasia, “in which the perception of sounds as language is partially preserved, but the patient is unable to comprehend the meaning of words, and in speaking, words are evoked with difficulty, are used incorrectly, and do not convey ideas correctly, resulting frequently in other forms of language impairment”; and Broca’s (or expressive) aphasia, “in which the patient knows what he wishes to say but is unable to get the words out, and is able to perceive and comprehend both spoken and written language but is unable to repeat what he sees or hears” (both definitions from McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, 6th edition). The deeper symbolic significance of Adah’s “deformities,” however, is to alert readers that, clearly and truthfully, Adah sees—which is why other characters, her doctors included, are mistaken to dismiss her as an “ornament” (the literal meaning of her Hebrew name), as, in essence, a non-person (as Ruth dismisses her—“she is bad on one whole side,” p. 21, or as “Our Father” dismisses her—“our house had enough females in it now to fill it up with blabber,” p. 34). Readers may expect that Adah will continue to be a reliable narrator, despite the fact that she, for now, keeps her silence.