The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 2: THE REVELATION
BOOK 2: THE REVELATION
Orleanna Price, Sanderling Island, Georgia
Summary: Orleanna relates how, years later, “the scent of Africa” can still surprise her, drawing her memories back to the time she spent with her family in the Congo. She remembers feeling like an outsider and a trespasser among the women of Kilanga, especially one market day when Leah tripped over a large pile of oranges. She remembers how “Independence Day”—the day Mama Tataba left the Price household and Nathan set free Methuselah the parrot—marked a turning point in their African sojourn. She remembers struggling with feelings of wanting to abandon her family, and how the pilot, Eeben Axelroot, used to extort the Prices for things that were already rightfully theirs, even their mail. She remembers the hard, even violent, work of preparing three meals a day, as her family expected. She remembers how Nathan tried, with varying success, to reconcile with Tata Ndu, the village chief, without whose blessing there could be no Christian congregation in Kilanga. And she remembers how she failed to see the trouble that was brewing for them.
Analysis: As the first book of Kingsolver’s novel took its title from the first book of the Bible, the second book of the novel takes its name from the Bible’s last: the Revelation (in some Christian traditions, the Apocalypse). The word literally means an “unveiling,” so readers can approach the second portion of Kingsolver’s novel fairly expecting significant information to be disclosed. In this chapter’s aroma-provoked reminiscences of Kilanga, Orleanna begins to do so—although she does not yet reveal the secret of whom she is addressing in these prologues. Readers could continue to construe the text to mean that she is addressing some dead or even unborn child: e.g., “I know you’re still here, holding sway. You’ve played some trick on the dividing of my cells, so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed. Africa, where one of my children remains in the dank red earth” (p. 87). Or this: “Oh, little beast, little favorite”—evoking Orleanna’s earlier confession (p. 6), as well as Leah’s desire to be Nathan’s favorite child (p. 66)—“Can’t you see I died as well?” (p. 89). The word “beast” further links back to Book 2’s epigraph, a quotation of Rev. 13:1: “I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up…” (p. 83). Who is this child, this favorite, this beast to whom Orelanna is speaking? That mystery, for now, is not yet revealed.
Orleanna does reveal, however, that she harbored a desire to leave her family while they were in the Congo: “The hardest work of every day”—even harder than boiling the water, even more difficult than the work of preparing and cooking food, work that Orelanna describes in noticeably violent, bloody terms—“was deciding, once again, to stay with my family” (p. 91). Readers sense that this admission is painful for Orleanna to make, even back in Georgia after unspecified years. Yet Orleanna cannot conceal this truth any longer, for she now realizes how trapped she really was: “I’d thought I could have it both ways: to be one of them [i.e., one of the Africans] and also my husband’s wife. What conceit! I was his instrument, his animal… I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war” (p. 89). Readers realize, therefore, that Orleanna is trapped in several systemic evils: the evil of imperialism and colonialism (recall how Orleanna alluded to her knowledge of complicity in conquering Africa in her first prologue); the evil of sexism and misogyny so insidious it can mislead women into submitting to it (“How we wives and mothers do perish at the hands of our own righteousness,” p. 89; also, her confessed misperception of her wedding day as freedom when it was really “the edge of another narrow precipice in the midst of a long, long fall,” p. 90); and the evil of racism, in which (as civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out) both the discriminators and the discriminated against are dehumanized by their lack of trust toward and love for each other. Orleanna wanted to connect with the Kilangans, but she remained an outsider; significantly—given the novel’s thematic emphasis on sight and vision—“my eye could not decipher” them (p. 88). She could see their external appearance, but she could not see them for who they really were—just as the Kilangans could see her and her daughters’ white skin, but not their innermost selves (“stupid ghost! non-person!,” p. 89). Such estrangement between human beings is always painful, but how much the more so, Orleanna tells us, among wives and mothers: “we’re all women, made of the same scarred earth” (p. 89). In context, she appears to be addressing only her daughters—some of whom, it is now revealed, are dead—but her words apply more generally, as well. Kingsolver will continue to develop the story of how the Prices strove to connect with the Kilangans—sometimes successfully, other times not—in Book 2.
Orleanna confirms for readers that “Independence Day” (a reference to Mama Tataba’s and Methuselah’s departure, although it also perhaps ironically evokes memories of Nathan transferring Easter to July 4) only hardened Nathan’s resolve to impose his (and, in his mind, God’s) will upon his garden and upon the village of Kilanga. “Nathan’s frightful confidence in himself… drove [Mama Tataba] off” (p. 94); “my husband’s intentions crystallized as rock salt” (p. 98). Nathan can compromise only so far with Tata Ndu: he agrees to perform baptisms by sprinkling rather than immersion, given the villagers’ fear of the crocodile-infested river; yet the revelation that the villagers previously rejected Brother Fowles’ preaching of monogamous marriage only further inflames Nathan’s righteous indignation. “Then I saw him reborn, with a stone in place of his heart” (p. 97). Her comment is an ironic reversal of God’s promise in Ezek. 36:26—“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”—and it does not bode well for either the villagers or Nathan’s own family. Neither an evangelist, a husband nor a father can have “a stone in place of his heart,” since all three roles, properly performed, require love.
“The Things We Learned, Kilanga, June 30, 1960”
Summary: Leah, at least, is beginning to engage with Kilangan society. Ruth May is actually the Price daughter who “broke the ice,” as Leah puts it, by teaching the Kilangan children to play “Mother May I.” Leah, however, proceeds to make friends with Pascal, a village boy, from whom she begins to learn Kikongo (the language spoken in Kilanga) and with whom she explores the native flora and fauna and plays such “games” as “Find Food,” “Recognize Poisonwood” and “Build a House.” Leah experiences her first intimations that “childhood,” as she knows it, is a Western concept very foreign to much of the world; and she feels a flash of resentment toward her father that she comes from such a privileged life—privileged, yet cut off from so much of the world.
Analysis: In this chapter, Leah begins to move out of childhood into adolescence and young adulthood. She states that she and Adah were “late-bloomers in terms of the bad things” like breast development and menstruation (p. 103); however, she is also being exposed to a different attitude toward the body and its normal development in her interactions with the children and adolescents of Kilanga. Pascal, for instance—whom Leah calls her nkundi, her “first real friend in the Congo” (p. 112)—wears shorts with holes over his buttocks; and while Leah finds his wardrobe somewhat distressing, she adds, “I think I would have found it impossible to be friends with a purely naked boy” (p. 112). Pascal also, in describing the different, gendered words for rain in Kikongo, points “to his private parts and mine without appearing to think a thing in the world was wrong with that” (p. 112). Readers will be reminded once more of the welcome feast for the Prices, where we first witnessed the Kilangans’ unashamed view of their physical existence. Pascal is a representative of that freedom for Leah; and while she resists its appeal, readers also sense that she finds it attractive—as, indeed, she may be finding Pascal in himself attractive. It may be too soon to ascribe any romantic or sexual dimension to their relationship, but Kingsolver may well be planting the seeds of that interpretation by juxtaposing Leah’s friendship with Pascal and her newfound “stirring of anger against [her] father” (p. 115). Given what we have seen in previous chapters—Leah’s intense attachment and devotion to Nathan, set against the backdrop of the demonstration garden—the fact that she is now, against the backdrop of “the Garden of Eden” (as she refers to their backyard, p. 101) and the “heavenly paradise” that is the Congo (p. 103), associating and to some extent identifying with a different male figure is surely noteworthy. Pascal, all unknown to him, has the power to make Leah feel embarrassed, “scarlet and deep” (p. 115). That embarrassment may be due only to the fact that she is now realizing how privileged her life has been when compared with that of the Africans: “I could see”—note Kingsolver’s return to the theme of (in)sight; this is a key moment for “weak-eyed” Leah, as her vision is, metaphorically, growing stronger and truer—“that the whole idea and business of Childhood was nothing guaranteed…. [but rather] more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress” (pp. 114-15). Even so, that insight in itself bespeaks of Leah’s burgeoning maturity (physical, emotional, and mental); and Pascal, a boy of roughly her own age, is a key catalyst for it.
Another important theme in this chapter is the power of words to make a world—or, more accurately, the power of words to grant access to worlds. “We had to learn the names of everything,” says Leah, in order to participate in the life of Kilanga (p. 101). She is unable to concentrate on the schoolwork Orleanna assigns her because she is fascinated by the entirely different world outside the walls of their home, a world signified by “the queer glittery syllables” of Kikongo, which “sounded like nonsense but carried a much secret purpose” (p. 104). The Kilangan children “speak a language that burgles and rains from their mouths like water through a pipe” (p. 105), and the fact that the Prices do not know this language forms a barrier to any real connection with the people of the village: “They pointed and talked among themselves, lording it over me that their whole world left me out” (p. 105). Leah offers another keen insight when she states, “I wanted them to play with me. I suppose everyone in our family wanted the same, in one way or another” (p. 106). The family wants to enter the world of Kilanga, but some are hanging back. At least in this chapter, however, Ruth May and Leah are two who find a way to engage this new world. Ruth May does so by teaching her language in the process of playing games: “Ma-da-meh-yi?” (p. 111); Leah does so by learning the Kilangans’ language from Pascal: “Our companionship consisted mainly of Pascal telling me the names for everything we saw and some things I hadn’t thought to look for” (p. 112). True, Leah attempts to teach Pascal some English words, but—apart from the word for Rachel’s Timex watch and her blonde hair—he “didn’t care to remember them” (p. 113). And why should he? He has his own rich world, the world to which the Prices came as outsiders and must now gain access. And so Leah does, through word and, significantly, through sight: “Finally I learned to see and avoid [the poisonwood tree’s] smooth, shiny leaves” (p. 112). It is the third time that key word from the novel’s title has appeared in the text, and here it seems to announce that Leah has, through learning the right words, gained a proper perspective on Kilanga; perhaps, indeed, on life itself. As the Kilangans live in harmony with nature and each other, Leah, by recognizing and avoiding poisonwood, is learning to do likewise.