The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 2:part 3
Summary: Despite his argument with Nathan, Anatole sends his star pupil, who is called Nelson (although his Kikongo name is Lekuyu), to provide domestic help for the Prices. Leah believes Anatole sends Nelson in part because Nelson has reached twelve years of age and can no longer attend the village school; Anatole knows the Price household contains many books, and probably thinks Nelson will be able to continue his education in that way. The girls are doing a lot of reading themselves: Orleanna is keeping them confined to the house because an epidemic is sweeping through Kilanga, “a disease where you have to go the bathroom a thousand times a day” but can also lead to serious complications including death. Orleanna also starts the girls working on various needlepoint projects for their hope chests. Leah finds herself hard pressed to find motivation to work on her projects, for she does not believe she will ever be married.
Analysis: This chapter shows us several levels on which Leah is beginning to mature—not fully, not right away, but, it seems, slowly and steadily. For example, it seems as though her friend Pascal may not end up being the object of any romantic attention, as earlier seemed possible: Leah finds herself daydreaming about Anatole, constructing a fantasy situation in which—notably—the animosity between Anatole and her father no longer exists: “In my imaginary scene, Father has forgiven Anatole and encourages his friendship with our family” (p. 144). This detail may point to continued unresolved, problematic feelings in Leah’s relationship with Nathan, now that another man—also an authority figure, also a teacher, but fulfilling both roles in very different ways than does the Rev. Price—has caught her eye. At the same time, however, Leah senses danger in whatever thoughts and feelings she may have about Anatole: “I think maybe it is true that the idle mind is the Devil’s workshop” (p. 147), she allows as she tells of the way in which she sometimes pictures Anatole as the Devil, with his “gap-toothed smile and… elegant, scarred face” (p. 148). All the while, Leah claims to be uninterested in kissing—“If you want to see stars—which is what Rachel claims it’s all about—then why not just go climb a tree in the dark?” (p. 149)—and compares her own physical maturation unfavorably to that of other girls, “all those ninth-grade girls with flirty eyes and foundation makeup and bosoms poking out the fronts of their mohair sweater sets” (p. 149). She does not believe she will get married, thinking instead—sounding as she does, no doubt unknowingly, like Nathan—that she will be “a missionary or a teacher or a farmer, telling others how the Lord helps those that help themselves” (p. 149). (Recall how Leah earlier expressed unease with the fact that most of the village girls her age, “or even younger, have babies” and eyes that have “already seen most of what there is. Married eyes,” p. 107. Leah wants to avoid the same fate.) Leah’s proposed “life of piety” (p. 149 may be more an escape from the naturally conflicted years of puberty than an authentic religious calling. At any rate, all of Leah’s thoughts on the subject reveal a girl who is well aware of, and not altogether comfortable with (as few youth are), her growth into a young woman.
Leah also appears to be growing in her perception of the world (again, ironic, considering her biblical namesake had weak eyes). Connected with her thoughts of Anatole are her thoughts about the political situation in the Congo. When she hears about rubber plantation foremen chopping off the hands of native workers who do not meet their quota, she asks, “Could this [behavior] be true of civilized white Christians?” (p. 144). She is also increasingly aware of the larger political context: e.g., “According to the Underdowns, the Belgians are bent on protecting against independent thought on native ground” (p. 143)—a trait the Belgians share, incidentally, with the Rev. Price! Leah is beginning, however hesitantly, to question the status quo, another sign of growth. Like the people of the Congo, Leah desires freedom. She envies Nelson his freedom to come and go as he pleases; she chafes against the imposed “siesta time” her mother implements; she roots, as her father tells her to, “for Methuselah to learn to be free” (p. 151). Of course, since Methuselah symbolizes the Congo to some extent—the nation’s captivity, like the parrots, “was an embarrassment” (p. 151)—the bird can only represent a broken, fragmented freedom. His captivity “made the parrot into a less noble creature than God intended” (p. 151). Is the same happening to Leah? Is her “captivity” at her father’s hands lessening her nobility, and will she be able to eventually regain it? (Leah is also, perhaps despite herself, increasing in empathy for those who are less fortunate, demonstrated in her comments about now understanding the injustice of expecting the poor children who received the Price girls’ second-hand, second-rate books back in Bethlehem to be grateful, p. 147).
The specter of death, “the Predator,” as Adah called it, similarly hovers over this chapter. Leah says Ruth “tears through her life like she plans on living out the whole thing before she hits twenty” (p. 145). Her young age makes her “exempt from hope chest” activities (p. 152), but readers—well aware from Orleanna’s chapters that some child, either one we already know or one we do not, will be dead and buried in Africa before the book’s end—may wonder if Kingsolver is foreshadowing Ruth’s fate. Or, perhaps, Adah’s: Adah has already been “dead,” after all; Leah says her twin is “bent on destruction” (p. 145) and describes Adah’s hope chest projects as “weird, morbid things… black borders on cloth napkins and the like” (p. 152), the black border being a traditional symbol of mourning. Adah’s “death and resurrection” in the previous chapter has, however, improved Adah and Nathan’s relationship, at least for the time being. The villagers—encouraged by the Rev. Price’s sermon on Daniel being saved by God from certain death in the lions’ den (p. 151)—have interpreted Adah’s “deliverance” from the lion as evidence of “a wrestling match between the gods, with Jesus and Adah coming out on top” (p. 150). Leah resentfully claims that Nathan now treats Adah as his favorite (again echoing the favoritism seen in the patriarchal families of Genesis). Notably, “the Verse” punishment the girls had to do after the lion incident involved “Genesis 4, about Cain and Abel” (p. 145), a biblical story that includes the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). Leah asks a similar question in this chapter: “Are Adah and I expected to go on being twin sisters forever?” (p. 145). In the Bible, the implicit answer to Cain’s question is yes—we are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers. The answer to Leah’s question remains, at this point in the text, unclear; although Leah clearly hopes the answer is no.
Summary: Ruth and Nelson collect eggs from the Price’s chickens. As they do, Nelson tells Ruth that the people of Kilanga are watching the family to see if anything bad happens to them. If something does, the villagers are poised to leave Nathan’s church, for they will interpret it as evidence that Jesus cannot protect as well as the traditional gods. Nelson gets mad at Leah for keeping an owl as a pet. In Kilangan culture, the owl is a bad omen: it “flies around at night and eats up the souls of dead people,” and too many villagers are dying (from the “kakakaka” disease described by Leah in the previous chapter—i.e., dysentery). When Nathan dismisses this idea as superstition, Leah interprets his words as a defense of her keeping the owl as a pet. Nathan hits her “for the sin of pride.” When she goes into the jungle to set the owl free that night, Leah stays away for hours; it is not until the early morning that she returns.
Analysis: “Sometimes I prayed for Baby Jesus to make me be good,” says Ruth, “but Baby Jesus didn’t” (p. 153). It is hard to see, however, exactly how, in this chapter, Ruth is being bad. She seems to be referring to her attempts “to see Nelson naked” (p. 153). No doubt, given her father’s reaction to the bare-breasted village women at the welcome feast, Ruth has a distorted view of the human body as inherently sinful; and so she may interpret what is a natural, child-like curiosity as sinful, too. “I just wanted to see Nelson. I was bad” (p. 153). Readers may wonder how this distorted view of the physical body will affect Ruth when she reaches the age Rachel has reached and begins to mature.
The theme of the ever-present threat of death continues to develop in this chapter. Leah’s pet owl is a sign of death for the Kilangans, of course. In addition, Nelson speaks of Tata Kuvudundu’s supposed ability to raise people from the dead. He also tells Ruth about some villagers’ plans to bury rocks in the Prices’ demonstration garden, hoping to dig them up “after the white people are all dead” to discover that the rocks have turned to gold. “Why will all the white people be dead?” Nelson didn’t know” (p. 154)—but readers may intuit that the villagers think the white, Western intruders in their land will be dead as a result of an impending, Lumumba-led revolution.
This chapter also further develops the theme of a “contest” between traditional African gods and the Christian God. Not that Kingsolver’s novel literally treats of deities in conflict, of course; rather, the gods of both sides represent their people’s respective ways of life, ethos, mores and worldviews. Ironically, the Westerners view the African gods as too small and limited: “Nelson says everybody’s got their own little God here to protect them, special African ones that live in the little tiny thing they wear around their necks” (p. 154). Westerners such as Ruth (largely, no doubt, merely parroting her elders) contrast the gods of the gree-gree with the Christian God: “I told Nelson that Jesus is way too big to ride around in a little gree-gree” (p. 155). To Western eyes, the “way too big”-ness of Jesus somehow proves his superiority; for the Kilangans, however, that same “size” seems to make Jesus suspect. Jesus’ “size” is why the villagers are carefully watching what happens to the Price family. Even those who are attending Nathan’s worship services have not fully committed to being Christian: “Nelson says they’ve got one foot in the door of the church and one foot out. If something bad happens to one of us”—and Kingsolver is sounding a note of foreshadowing here; readers already know, from Orleanna’s chapters, that a Price child will die—“out they’ll go” (p. 155). In other words, the Kilangan gods are actually “bigger” than “Tata Jesus” (one of the Rev. Price’s only attempts to cast his foreign message in native terms—an attempt that is not serving him well, apparently!) because, despite their “size,” they are believed to protect the individual villagers. The gree-gree is a talisman that assures those who wear it of protection from the native, known deities. The Prices cannot offer any similar assurances about the foreign, unknown deity Nathan is preaching about. (Hardly surprising given that Ruth admits, “I’ms scared of Jesus, too,” p. 158—who wouldn’t be, if Nathan Price is supposedly Jesus’ representative?) Nathan is quick to dismiss local superstition in this chapter, but his rational, Western mindset prevents him from appreciating the power and comfort such “superstitions” hold. (The controversy over Leah’s owl, then, becomes not only a change Kingsolver rings upon the theme of mortality, but another example of Nathan’s failure to connect with the Kilangans in an authentic way.)
The owl episode, however, emerges primarily as an example of the overbearing, authoritarian approach Nathan takes to his role as a father. Readers, who already know much about Leah’s desperate desire (and perhaps inappropriately so) to win her father’s approval, cannot help but be as stung as Leah is by Nathan’s slap: “He smacked her hard for the sin of pride, and made her do The Verse… [The bruise on her neck] looked like Father was holding his hand in front of the kerosene light and making a shadow on her. But he wasn’t, he was in the other room a-reading in his Bible” (p. 156). What a perceptive passage from Ruth May! Nathan Price does indeed cast a shadow over his family, even when he is not physically present, a shadow of harsh discipline and strict control rationalized in religious terms (note how casually Nathan accuses the Devil of having “purchased” the souls of his own family, p. 157!). Leah tries to escape when she is setting her owl free—yet another example of a bird being liberated in the novel—but, like Methuselah the parrot, Leah cannot free herself. How could she be expected to, a child in a foreign and dangerous (even to those born and bred in it) environment? Readers may briefly wonder whether Leah will die, but—like her twin Adah before her—Leah returns safely from the hostile jungle: another metaphorical “resurrection,” but not to new life—simply a return to the old life of Nathan’s authoritarian control. The rest of the family celebrates her return; “But uh-oh, there was Father in his dark bedroom doorway looking out” (p. 158). Earlier, he had gone to bed rather than wait up for Leah, and Ruth intuits that he is suffering some pangs of guilt about having abused her (“Father was mad and wanted to get the subject off of Leah, since it was him that ran her off,” p. 157). But when the crisis has passed, rather than, say, the father of Jesus’ parable welcoming home the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32), Leah’s father meets her with only disapproval and even, readers may sense, some measure of disgust. (He has, after all, consigned his daughter and wife’s souls to the Devil on the previous page!) Orleanna does not sleep in the same room as Nathan that night, and readers will likely hardly blame her.
Summary: In January 1960, the Underdowns visit the Prices with unexpected news: elections in the Congo have been called for May, with independence from Belgium to follow in June. They remind the Prices that the Mission League did advise against the family’s sojourn in Africa. They tell the Prices that the Mission League’s stipend, small as it is, will no longer continue. Frightened at the prospect of an unsettled and potentially violent transition to independence, Rachel hopes her father will decide to take the family back home; instead, Nathan rededicates himself to his work, vowing that the family will stay in Kilanga until new missionaries arrives—whenever that might be.
Analysis: The plot reaches its first real climax in this chapter, as the crisis of the Congo’s impending independence from Belgium presents the Rev. Price with a decision: to go back home or, against the advice of the mission agency whom the “Underdowns” (not their real name; p. 159; apparently Rachel and her sisters are either unable or unwilling to learn the couples’ true, foreign name, which may be a telling comment about their residual unwillingness to engage what is outside of their own, limited experience) represent, to stay. Unsurprisingly, given what readers have already seen of his stubbornness, Nathan resolves to stay. He is completely unconvinced that the Congo is ready for independence, and states his belief that his work is vital to the land’s future: “If these people are to be united at all, they will come together as God’s lambs in their simple love for Christ” (p. 168). Of course, Nathan’s work to this point gives no indication that such a result is likely to occur. Yet the revelation that the Mission League advised him against undertaking missionary work in the Congo says much about not only his stubborn temperament but also his willful denial of certain realities (the physical dangers of Kilanga; the local and global political unrest surrounding the Congo; the harsh treatment of the rubber plantation workers and the miners). Orleanna is speaking of King Baudouin I of Belgium (ruled 1951-93) when she asks, “Is that how a father rules?” (p. 166), but her question, of course, bears thematic resonance when applied to her own husband. Readers may question what kind of father knowingly exposes his family to possibly mortal danger when advised (in strong terms, it seems) not to do so. The Rev. Price would no doubt invoke religious reasons to support his decision; readers, however, learning of this development through Rachel’s eyes and the reactions of the Price girls and women, may well wonder if any Scriptural or theological arguments Nathan might make would simply be more self-serving rationalization. Rachel seems not far off the mark when she comments, “Father would sooner watch us all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself” (p. 169). Is that how a father “rules,” indeed? Nathan dismisses the idea of an election as “a fairy tale” (p. 167); and while it is historically true that the impending election will not lead to stability and security in the Congo, Nathan rejects the idea out of hand because of his religiously motivated tunnel vision. “I know what I see,” he tells Frank Underdown (p. 168)—but Nathan truly sees very little.
Not that the Underdowns seem any more sympathetic toward the Africans, either. Janna Underdown is convinced that her houseboy “would steal anything except the children” (p. 161). Readers should probably question the evidence she offers of the houseboy’s guilt, given that she is predisposed to think ill of him. Readers should also bear in mind what Orleanna told Ruth earlier in the novel regarding the question of theft by the local children: “Mama says you can’t hardly even call it a sin when they need ever little thing as bad as they do” (pp. 50-51). True to form, Orleanna here responds to Mrs. Underdown’s complaint “without seeming all that interested” (p. 160). Orleanna has a sympathy for the Kilangans that her family and the Underdowns seem, for the most part, to lack (note her response to Nathan’s accusing glare when she criticizes the West’s treatment of the Congolese who work on the rubber plantations and in the mines—she does not back down from her claims, but defends them by appealing to her direct interaction with the village women: “Well, honestly, Nathan. I talk to their wives,” p. 165. She knows, even if her husband does not, the “tales to make your hair stand on end” about violence and abuse of the native population at Western direction and by Western hands).
Historical context informs this chapter: the Underdowns reference the Brussels “Roundtable Conference,” at which Congolese delegates rejected Belgium’s four-year plan for a transition to independence, conceding a matter of only months instead; and the newspaper they bring states that “Khrushchev wanted to take over the Belgian Congo and deprive the innocent savages of becoming a free society” (p. 161). Nikita Khrushchev was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 1958-64, and his attitude toward what he called Western “interference” in the Congo—along with, obviously, the West’s defense of those same actions—exemplifies the way in which the Cold War was a proxy war between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies. So far from being genuinely interested in the well-being of the Congo and its people, the Congo was one more pawn in the geo-political chess match between communism and capitalism. Later in 1960, Khrushchev would confront United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold regarding the UN’s peacekeeping operations in the Congo, accusing it of being “a piratical, imperialistic, colonialist policy” (Paragraph 100, Official Records of the 881st meeting, 1 October 1960). Kingsolver’s novel thus faithfully reflects the historical situation, reminding readers that the outside world is, as Orleanna has sensed, about “to roll over [the Price family] like a river” (p. 98). For Rachel, of course, all larger, political concerns are secondary: “Jeez Louise, if Khrushchev wants the Congo, he can have it” (p. 161). She is at least able to see through the newspaper’s blatant, propaganda of lies about how the Belgian army frequently interrupts cannibal rituals: “Huh. If they came to our village that day they would have interrupted Mother in the middle of scrubbing the floor…” (p. 161). Rachel seems to sense that the truth of the Congo and its people is not being represented faithfully to the outside world. Even so, she has little sympathy for her neighbors: “I stared out the window, wondering who wouldn’t want to leave the Congo before you could say Jack Robinson if they had half a chance” (p. 162).
The theme of Rachel’s burgeoning sexual maturity appears briefly in this chapter, as she notes the pilot Axelroot “undressing [her] mentally” (p. 160). Readers have already learned, via Ruth, that Axelroot is a questionable character; to have him in such close proximity, textually speaking, to Rachel as she develops may be cause for concern. Further cause for concern may be the way in which Leah, “[e]ver since Father smacked her over the owl,” has been “trying twice as hard to win him back over” (p. 162). These dynamics sound like nothing so much as the not uncommon behavior of an abused wife toward her abusive husband, striving to get into the abuser’s good graces despite the fact of the abuse. It is not surprising that the Kilangans have not learned to love Jesus from the Rev. Price, since the Rev. Price demonstrates so little love in his own life.
Summary: Many children in Kalanga die from dysentery. The Congo’s rainy season finally ends, and the election is held. Eeben Axelroot makes more frequent flights, making as much money as he can before independence arrives. Kuvudundu leaves a bowl filled with chicken bones outside the Price house in order, Adah believs, to protect the family “from angry gods, and [their] own stupidity.”
Analysis: The spectre of mortality casts a large shadow over this chapter. Adah not only somberly observes the high mortality rate among the children of the village—they are dying so frequently, the death watch “is not an occasion for writing a poem here in Kilanga” (p. 170), as William Carlos Williams (appropriately, Adah likes his palindromic name) was able to do while waiting for a child to die (his 1923 poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which Adah quotes in full)—but also expresses her own doubts that she will live to adulthood. Death is not only literal in Kilanga during the dysentery epidemic, but figurative: the mourning mothers, burying their young, sound themselves “like babies dying of hunger” (p. 170). There is also symbolic death in Axelroot’s unfair business dealings with the local women: he pays them “nothing for their manioc and plantains, leaving them wailing like mourners at a funeral” (p. 174). And Western falsehoods about cannibalism resurface: “Those of doubtful righteousness”—i.e., Western interferers in Africa—“speak of cannibals, the unquestionably vile, the sinners and the damned. It makes everyone feel much better” (p. 174). Death permeates this chapter so that readers cannot help but wonder if the impending death of a Price family member will be the dundu, the “price [they] have to pay” (p. 175), for their “stupidty” (as Adah sees it, p. 174) in refusing to leave the Congo. (Note, then, the new ironic level of their family surname!) Their ignorance of Africa—“Our Baptist ears from Georgia will never understand the difference” (p. 175)—seems as though it will prove fatal. The impending independence of the Congo will indeed inaugurate a stormy period in its history: the parrot Methuselah, like the nation itself, is “unprepared for a new season of overwhelming freedom” (p. 173). “Indeed, the earth shall move” (p. 173)—but in destructive rather than constructive ways, because the election will consist of the “make-believe votes of children” (p. 173)—not through any fault of the Congolese themselves, but because of decades of subjugation and exploitation at Western hands have rendered them metaphorical children.
The Rev. Price’s reaction to the actual children’s deaths in Kilanga further illustrates his lack of love and compassion: “Our Father” doesn’t “mind the corpses so much as the souls unsaved. In the grand tally Up Yonder, each one counts as a point against him” (p. 171). Adah lost her belief in God (“Our Father who art in heaven,” as the Lord’s Prayer has it) because of this cold view toward the “heathen”: “This was the sticking point… [that] admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw” (p. 171). The “gospel” that Nathan preaches seems to be anything but “good news.” Adah cannot believe that “Our Lord would be such a hit-or-miss Saviour” (p. 171). She perceives that Nathan’s gospel is being (ab)used to justify the privilege of some at the expense of others. Thus she concludes, playing with the multiple meanings of the expression “Tata Nzolo,” that her family is praying to “the god of small potatoes” (p. 172), rather than any real deity: “That other Dearly Beloved who resides in north Georgia does not seem to be paying much attention to the babies here in Kilanga” (p. 172). For Adah, as she perceives the trouble awaiting a newly independent Congo, the “babies here in Kilanga” may mean not only the literal young children, but all of the Kilangan people.