The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 2:part 2
Ruth May Price
Summary: While up in a tree to spy on the Jeune Mou-Pro (a group of Communist revolutionaries in the Congo), Ruth falls and breaks her arm. She flies with her father to Stanleyville for hospital treatment on Eeben Axelroot’s plane; which Ruth (unlike her parents) knows Axelroot uses to smuggle diamonds. At the hospital, the Belgian doctor who sets Ruth’s arm talks with Nathan about the growing popularity and influence of the militant nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba. The doctor argues that Lumumba can do more good for Africa than either Belgium or America, a view Nathan does not appreciate but finds difficult to refute.
Analysis: Some knowledge of the Congo’s past as a colony of Belgium proves helpful in interpreting this chapter (and, indeed, the novel as a whole). Patrice Lumumba, about whom Ruth overhears in the argument between her father and the doctor in Stanleyville (the Congo’s major inland port after Kinshasha, founded in 1883 by the explorer Henry Stanley and later named for him; Orleanna alluded to Stanley’s associaton with David Livingstone in her first chapter, p. 9), was a militant nationalist leader whose organization of trade unions led to the foundation of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), the Congo’s first nationwide political party, in 1958. In 1960 (the year in which this portion of the novel takes place), Lumumba was asked, during negotiations in Belgium, to form the country’s first independent government (information taken from Britannica Concise Encyclopedia). This chapter takes place prior to that government’s formation in June 1960; at this stage, Lumumba is still gathering popular support, as the doctor’s comments indicate. He contrasts the actions of Lumumba with those of the Price family (and the Western missionary enterprise in general): “Between you and me, Reverend, I do not think the people here are looking for your kind of salvation. I think they are looking for Patrice Lumumba, the new soul of Africa… I expect he will have a larger following than Jesus” (p. 122). The Rev. Price does not take kindly to the doctor’s words, of course, but his reaction only illustrates the extent to which the missionary is misreading the situation in the Congo. As Orleanna hinted in her most recent chapter, his stubbornness and pride are blinding him to the tide of events, the Congo “preparing to roll over us like a river” (p. 98). The Congo, and so much of the rest of Africa, will no longer be “tamed” by Western colonial interests. The Belgian soldiers whom Ruth sees may be intended to show “everybody Congolese, like Tata Undo”—Ruth’s name for the village chief, Tata Ndu—“that Belgium is still calling the shots” (p. 116). But this state of affairs will not endure for much longer. Like the Price daughters poking Leon the chameleon with a stick “to show him who’ boss” (p. 118), such “dominion” will be exposed as cruel (although the Congo’s independence will not automatically prove any easier). Too many forces—among them the Communist nationalists the Jeune Mou-Pro (whom Ruth refers to as “Jimmy Crow, a name I knew from home,” p. 117—might Kingsolver be suggesting similarities between the former independence movement and the American South’s segregationist regime?)—will render Western authority over Africa unsustainable.
Kingsolver employs a particularly clever bit of wordplay to illustrate the problem facing Western presence and predicament in Africa. Ruth misunderstands the doctor’s use of the phrase “to make amends” as “to make amens.” The doctor is implying that Price’s mission is some attempt to make up for Western mistreatment of the people of the Congo: “We Belgians made slaves of them and cut off their hands in the rubber plantations. Now you Americans have them for a slave wage in the mines and let them cut off their own hands. And you, my friend, are stuck with the job of trying to make amens” (p. 121). Price, of course, does not see his role in this light; he is, indeed, trying to “make amens”—to win converts to Christianity, although, as Ruth observes, “[w]e haven’t baptized any yet” (p. 118). He is, as we have seen, frustrated in the apparent failure of his mission; and he is too proud to explore any new ways of carrying it out. He is too wedded to Western cultural forms to truly engage the Kilangans; and, even if were able to, his entire purpose for being in the Congo is entangled with political and economic interests that are at odds with the Gospel message he professes to preach. He is not always as blunt in his racial prejudice as Ruth is in this chapter—e.g., her belief that no one would cut off her hands “[b]ecause Jesus made me white, I reckon they wouldn’t,” a strong affirmation of white supremacy from a five-year-old!, p. 121)—but he clearly shares it. He cannot acknowledge the short-sighted self-interest of Western involvement in the Congo; he holds up Belgium and America as bringers of “civilization” to Africa—an echo of Victorian-era Westerners’ belief in the “white man’s burden” (frequently articulated by imperial-minded authors such as Kipling)—but cannot acknowledge that these efforts were made largely, if not solely, to serve Westerners. As the doctor pointedly observes, the Westerners built roads, but the native people “don’t have any cars in the Congo” (p. 121). Indeed, “in seventy-five years the only roads the Belgians ever built are the ones they use to haul out diamonds and rubber” (p. 122). Until amends are made for the West’s mistreatment and exploitation of Africa—if indeed such amends could ever be made—it seems unlikely that “amens” can be made among its people, and certainly not by missionaries who are as inflexible and blind to historic realities as is Nathan Price. He stands, in many ways, as a symbol of all that is worst in the West’s engagement with Africa.
Another historical reality informing this chapter is the illicit diamond trade. Although Axelroot claims to be carrying bags of food in his plane’s cargo hold, Ruth discovers, “No, sir, it was diamonds. I found that out and I can’t tell how. Even Father doesn’t know we rode in a airplane with diamonds. Mr. Axelroot said if I told, when then God would make Mama get sick and die. So I can’t” (p. 119). Kingsolver does not make clear when Axelroot made this threat to Ruth, as Ruth seems to be making her discovery while sitting atop cargo on the flight to Stanleyville. She does make clear, however, that Axelroot is involved in a criminal enterprise that has long plagued Africa. In the early 20th century, diamonds from the Kasai River, more of industrial than gem quality, “quickly became and remained a major source of revenue for the Congo State and the Belgian Congo. For the independent Republic of the Congo/Zaire, diamonds were important not only for their direct export value but also because of the advantages accruing from smuggling them. In the early 1960s diamond smuggling was rampant, but the authorities did little to prevent it because that smuggling was considered a means of limiting the rise in value of the Congolese franc on the parallel money market” (Simon Katzenellenbogen, Encyclopedia of African History, Vol. 1, New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005; p. 314). Axelroot is thus a player in this illegal trafficking that still plagues the African continent; as previous references to him in the novel have stated, he is not to be viewed as a morally upstanding or trustworthy character.
Axelroot does, at least, provide reliable information to Ruth about the green mamba snake: “There’s not a thing in this world hides as good as a green mamba snake. They’re just the same color as what they lay up against… and they don’t move a muscle. You could be right by one and not know it” (p. 119). In this chapter, Ruth identifies herself with these snakes: unwittingly at first, simply by being up in a tree as she spies on the Communist youth army (as Ruth later states, the mamba snakes “live up in a tree so they can drop on you and kill you,” p. 119); but then expressly: “I lay so still against the tree branch I was just the same everything as the tree. I was like a green mamba snake. Poison” (p. 124). Readers may be reminded of Ruth’s previous self-identification as “bad” (p. 20), and will want to bear this new self-identification with the mamba snake in mind, as it may prove an interpretive key to Ruth’s character.
Summary: The Price family hosts Anatole, their Kikongo interpreter and the village schoolmaster, for dinner. He tells the Rev. Price that Tata Ndu is upset that so many Kilangans are attending the Christian worship services; the chief fears they are upsetting the traditional gods and ancestors, thus inviting bad fortune upon the village. He also tells the Prices that many villagers are seeking out help with their problems from Tata Kuvudundu, a priest of the folk religions whom Nathan angrily dismisses as a “witch doctor.” When Anatole refers to the “missionary times” as a thing of the past, Nathan, furious, asks him to leave. When Orleanna suggests he ought to instead let Anatole’s report inform his ministry, Nathan angrily breaks the bone-china platter on which she had served dinner and insinuates that she was trying to attract Anatole’s affections.
Analysis: Readers were previously introduced to Anatole in the description of the welcoming dinner at the church (he interpreted Tata Ndo’s speech for the Prices), but this dinner scene gives us further insight into his character. The symbolic image of scars appears again. In the previous chapter, Ruth mentioned that Orleanna interprets the scars on the Kilangan people’s skin as “a map of all the sorrows in their lives” (p. 123); Antaole’s scars, however, are the result of a deliberate choice, for they are “like a tattoo” (p. 125). These scars serve to mark him as a mysterious other for Rachel; they also serve to indicate his identification with the villagers—an identification the Prices have not, to this point, accomplished, or much sought (Leah’s earlier statement about wanting the people to play with them notwithstanding): “Around here the people seem content to settle for whatever scars life whangs them with as a decoration” (p. 127). As we have seen, the Kilangans are unselfconscious about their bodies, and do not regard its natural flaws or inflicted deformities as faults.
Ruth’s malapropisms return in this chapter (e.g., “a putative from the law,” p. 125; “their French congregations,” p. 126), sometimes with significance: “Father’s whole face changed and I knew he was going to use the special way of talking he frequently perpetuates on his family members, dogs that have peed in the house, and morons…” (p. 133)—Rachel wants the word “perpetrates” (which also would have been an intriguing choice, since that word so often precedes the word “crime”), but her unwitting selection of a word that means “ongoing, continual, everlasting” and the like speaks volumes how about how often the Rev. Price treats the women of his family in such a demeaning way (note “his usual disgust” at Orleanna and Rachel, p. 134). Surely, the chapter’s conclusion—the shattering of the beautiful bone-china platter—must be viewed symbolically as well as literally. Nathan accuses Orleanna of having grown “too fond of that plate,” but he is really accusing her—irrationally, readers likely presume—of fondness for Anatole. If the platter does represent dreams of a beautiful family life (as Leah earlier suggested, describing her mother’s hopes to throw Rachel a “sweet sixteen” party in which the platter would have borne the Angel Dream cake, p. 68), then Nathan’s destruction of it represents a fairly final end to those dreams. Notably, Orleanna’s response is “I was too fond of that plate” (p. 134)—as opposed to any protestation of her fondness for her husband, or any outright rejection of his accusations.
Summary: Orleanna sends Leah and Adah to fetch water. On the way back, Leah does not wait for slow-moving Adah to keep up. As she journeys home, Adah sees many things, including Anatole reading a letter about the Belgian timetable for the Congo’s independence aloud to a group of young militants. Adah returns to the Price house in the evening hours before dinner, unnoticed. She hides in the darkness as Tata Ndu arrives to tell the family that Adah has been devoured by a wild lion; lion tracks were discovered close behind Adah’s distinct, dragging footprints. Only Orleanna reacts with grief to this news; Adah’s sisters do not understand Tata Ndu’s speech, and Nathan begins to pray. He stops when Adah emerges from hiding. Tata Ndu, for his part, seems put out by the fact that Adah’s survival has proven him wrong.
Analysis: “Witnessing one’s own funeral” is a common motif in literature, and this chapter does have something of the feel of an episode from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer about it. Adah does not exactly watch her own burial services, but she is able to see her family’s varied reactions to the news of her supposed demise. Only Adah’s mother reacts with anything approaching appropriate grief—although the “affliction” Adah sees on Orleanna’s face may be Orleanna’s grief for herself as much as for her daughter (particularly with the incident of the broken platter so fresh in readers’ minds). Orleanna seems to know she is “unalive… the woman who could not fight fire with fire, even to save her children” (p. 140). Adah is presumed to be literally dead; Orleanna, it seems, is metaphorically dead, trapped in her marriage and in what she perceives as her African exile. “Our Father,” the Rev. Price, exhibits a reaction in keeping with the relief he felt when Adah was diagnosed with hemiplegia (p. 34). It is as though he is eager to accept Adah’s death, relieved of one more girl for whom to be responsible; he quickly puts on his professional demeanor, “commanding” a prayer (p. 140). Hardly the reaction one would expect from a grief-stricken father! (Recall Orleanna’s observation: “He was hardly a father except in the vocational sense, as a potter with clay to be molded,” p. 98). Nor does the other “father” (“tata”) in the scene, Tata Ndu, grieve. Adah’s supposed death initially gives the village chief ammunition in his campaign against the Christian missionary effort: he “came here personally to tell us that the gods of his village did not take kindly to the minister of corruption” (p. 140). When Adah chooses to reveal herself, then, “it [is] not so much that he wanted [Adah] eaten, but that he [does] not like being wrong” (p. 141). Adah’s survival offends the chief’s pride.
Despite the dramatic irony of the situation (which Kingsolver also knows how to play for some humor; e.g., speaking of why a lion would have chosen to eat her, Adah says, “Pure and unblemished souls”—among which she does not count herself—“must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness,” p. 135), much more of the chapter is given over to developing the theme of Adah’s keen vision of life in the Congo. Continuing the contrast with “weak-eyed” Leah, who runs quickly and who, like her sisters, seems “determined to fly” (p. 136), Adah prefers to walk slowly, exploring the path out of Kilanga bit by bit, day by day. She wants to discover “sights of [her] own” (p. 137), and she describes what she sees in vivid detail (the description of the native women folding and unfolding their colorful cloth is particularly beautiful)—including one sight her other sisters have wanted to see but as yet have not: the pygmies. Adah seems, like the Kilangans, to accept life as it is, and to see it as it truly is.
This chapter further refines the symbolic significance of Methuselah, the parrot left behind by Brother Fowles (Kingsolver rings some punning changes on the missionary’s name and the word for birds, p. 137). Whereas, at the end of Book 1, Nathan’s emancipation of Methuselah seemed to be a symbol of the unconquered Africa (like the okapi or the unicorn in Orleanna’s first chapter), here Adah makes symbolic sense of the fact that Methuselah, even uncaged, has remained near the Price home: “Methuselah, like me, is a cripple: the Wreck of Wild Africa” (p. 137). Methuselah now seems to represent the African potential, had it been left to flourish free of Western interference. Of course, it was not; Belgium and other Western nations “caged” Africa (as the doctor in Stanleyville argued with the Rev. Price in Ruth’s previous chapter). As the parrot’s wings are “atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery” (p. 137), so may be the metaphorical wings of the Congo, now facing imminent independence. Perhaps this is why Anatole and the armed boys with whom Adah sees him laugh “ferociously” at the letter proposing 1964 as a date for the Congo’s independence from Belgium (p. 138): they either think the date defers freedom too long, or know that, no matter when freedom comes, the Congo, because of the West’s dark past in Africa, cannot truly be free until long past that date. Real emancipation will take far more than four years. The nations’ “independence,” like Methuselah’s, is “frozen” (p. 138). Merely opening the cage cannot be enough.
Finally, readers should note that this chapter continues to develop the mystery of which Price daughter “remains in the dank red earth” of Africa (p. 87). By having Adah matter-of-factly report her own “death” at the chapter’s outset, Kingsolver introduces a brief time of narrative uncertainty into the text: is Adah narrating her story from beyond the grave—a phenomenon not, after all, uncommon in modern literature? Soon enough, readers realize that Adah is enjoying the circumstance, and we are “in on the joke,” so to speak; however, this chapter does present the first instance in which one of the Price daughters is presumed dead—and, in literature, a presumed death is often as important as a real one. Adah undergoes a non-literal “death” and “resurrection” in this chapter; but readers know a literal death, quite probably without any kind of resurrection, remains ahead. Still, we know at this point that Adah envisions herself slowly trying to outrun mortality: “In my life… I must come to my own terms with the Predator” (p. 139).