The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 3:part 5
Summary: In the night, Adah goes to spy on Axelroot. Through his window, she sees the pilot and another man, whom she calls “W. I. Rogue,” drinking and discussing their orders, from President Eisenhower, to assassinate Prime Minister Lumumba.
Analysis: Mortality continues to loom over the text in this chapter, most obviously, of course, for Patrice Lumumba. As Adah puts it, “The King of America wants a tall, thin man in the Congo to be dead” (p. 297). Adah raises the interesting point that, were Lumumba and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s situations reversed—were Lumumba somehow capable of ordering and carrying out Eisenhower’s assassination—“the magazines would have something to say about that all right. What sort of man would wish to murder the president of another land?”—Readers may think again of Orleanna’s question near the close of Book Two, “Is this how a father rules?,” applied again to national leaders—“None but a barbarian. A man with a bone in his hair” (p. 298). Adah sees through the West’s, and specifically America’s, veneer of civilization to the barbarism beneath: “the smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face”(p. 297). She wishes she could share this revelation with “all those who believe in president grandfathers. Starting with Leah” (p. 298). She states she wants “to see no more” (p. 298), and she also regards what she has seen as a burden to bear. She thus seems to place herself in a prophetic position relative to others; like Emily Dickinson, she “makes small scratching sounds with her pen, covering with nightfall all creatures that really should know what to expect by now, but don’t” (p. 295). Here again, Adah’s ability to see the truth sets her apart from and at odds with the rest of her family; perhaps the element of pride does, as well.
Mortality also broods over the village as a whole in this chapter. The comparison to Dickinson, again, who died still young and who in life “dressed in black”—the traditional color of mourning—reinforces the theme; as does the recurring symbol of the owl—as we have learned from Nelson, a harbinger of death in Kilangan culture—“looking for souls to eat” (p. 295). “I saw the air change color,” Adah writes, in a striking poetic image: “it was blue with… the wailing for the dead” (p. 296). Furthermore, Adah has forbidden “Our Father’s” prohibitions and “at night, slipped out to spy on the funerals” of the children who perished in the epidemic (p. 296). Night, the time of darkness and sleep, is ironically inverted to become a time of alertness and vision for Adah. Indeed, Adah states that she only goes to spy on Axelroot “at night when all is plainer” (p. 297).
“WI/ROGUE” is, in fact, the codename that was given to the CIA dispatched to aid in Lumumba’s assassination. The CIA’s African Division recommended the man, saying “He is indeed aware of the precepts of right and wrong, but if he is given an assignment which may be morally wrong in the eyes of the world, because his case officer ordered him to carry it out, then it is right, and he will dutifully undertake appropriate action for its execution without pangs of conscience. In a word, he can rationalize all actions” (quoted by Loch K. Johnson, Strategic Intelligence, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, pp. 233-234). How appropriate, then, that Adah learns of Axelroot and “W.I. Rogue”’s plans at night, for from the tradition of biblical symbols (from which readers are now well aware that Kingsolver draws), night is the time when morally wrong actions are undertaken. Most notably, perhaps, when the disciple Judas Iscariot leaves supper to betray Jesus, the Gospel of John makes the simple but also symbolic statement, “And it was night” (John 13:30). Lumumba thus indirectly accrues a Christ-figure symbolism in this chapter, as he is the unknowing target of murder planned by external authorities who feel threatened by him. Another biblical symbol that appears in this chapter is the snake, a symbol of evil: to Adah’s eyes, the mass of radio wires Axelroot uses look like “a seething congregation of snakes” (p. 297; perhaps also evocative Jesus’ damning name for hypocritical religious authorities, “You brood of vipers!,” Matt. 23.33). Like the crafty serpent who, according to Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, tempted Adam and Even to sin in paradise, the radio “snake” wires represent the intrusion of evil into the innocent land of the Congo.
Leah; Rachel; Ruth May; Adah; Rachel (pp. 299-311)
Note: Because these five chapters are exceptionally brief and occur virtually simultaneously with each other, this guide will summarize and analyze them together.
Summary: One night, the village is swarmed by nsongonya (driver ants) that attack, it seems, everyone in Kilanga, the Price family included. Everyone heads for the river to ease the pain of the biting ants. They flee from their home: Nathan and Rachel lead the way; Rachel tries to save her mirror, but it breaks in the confusion. Leah strikes out on her own. Orleanna takes Ruth May in her arms; when Adah calls out for help—the only time, she says, she has spoken out loud—Orleanna commands her to follow close behind. She does so as best she can, but she falls and is trampled underfoot until Anatole lifts over the crowd into a boat with her mother. During the villagers’ escape, Nathan begins preaching a sermon about God’s judgment and the need for repentance; no one is listening. Anatole climbs into Leah’s boat. Leah accuses God of having abandoned her; Anatole tells her not to look for God’s hand in this natural phenomenon, or to seek “God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion.” She confides her love for Anatole; Anatole tells her never to say she loves him again.
Analysis: The episode of the nsongonya, told over five chapters in rapid succession by each Price girl (with two chapters from Leah “bookending” the incident) emerges as a vivid, natural parable of the situation in the Congo as Book Three of Kingsolver’s novel draws to its close. Disabusing Leah of her initial belief that the invasion of ants is somehow an act of God, Anatole makes this symbolic meaning plain: “Don’t blame God for what ants have to do. We all get hungry. Congolese people are not so different from Congolese ants… When they are pushed down long enough they will rise up. If they bite you, they are trying to fix things in the only way they know” (p. 308). This key passage reinforces the idea of undomesticated Africa, introduced as far back as Orleanna’s first chapter with the image of the opaki. The political turmoil roiling across the Congo and, indeed, the continent is, Anatole’s words suggest, the natural consequence of Western domination of Africa for so long. His words may also hint at greater violence and upheaval to come following the impending assassination of Lumumba, yet another incident of Western interference in African affairs. Readers learn that Leah now knows of the plot to kill the prime minister; Adah showed Leah her journal: “Adah has always had the power to know things I don’t” (p. 309). The knowledge of the assassination seems to weigh heavily upon her, as Adah suspected it would; it has challenged her faith in the goodness of the United States (“the easy land of ice-cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We Like Ike”—recall how Adah inverted Eisenhower’s campaign slogan in her previous chapter, yielding a mirror-reading of the phrase, “We like Ike who likes murder,” p. 298—“the country where I thought I knew the rules,” p. 309). The assassination plot becomes a catalyst for Leah to further remove herself from the center of her vision; in other words, as Anatole tells her, she must stop trying “to make life a mathematics problem with yourself at the center and everything coming out equal” (p. 309). Indeed, Leah has already made significant if imperfect growth in that direction; note how, when the ant invasion begins, she describes her exodus from the village as running “alongside our neighbors” (p. 299), and how she worries that Mama Mwanza will have no one to carry her. Of course, at the same time, Leah has forgotten about her family: “I don’t really know where anybody is, I just ran… I’d thought to worry about Mama Mwanza but not my own crippled twin” (p. 300). Indeed, Leah goes so far as to compare herself to Simon Peter, who denied Jesus three times: “How could I leave Adah behind again? Once in the womb, once to the lion, and now like Simon Peter I had denied her for the third time” (p. 300). It is a harsh, if not entirely undeserved, judgment; further, it reinforces the prophetic and Christ-like role that Adah assigned to herself in her previous chapter. While not without its complications, then, Leah has still grown in her empathy with and connection to Africa and its people: as she reflects, “Though I didn’t deserve it, I wanted to rise to heaven remembering something of beauty from the Congo” (p. 300). Her experience in Africa has become a true part of her that she wants to retain and incorporate into herself.
Readers can more fully appreciate Leah’s growth by contrasting her thoughts of Mama Mwanza with Rachel’s: “I spotted Mama Mwanza being carried on her husband’s back toward the boats. They went right past me! She did deserve help, poor thing, but I personally have a delicate constitution” (p. 302). Rachel has some limited capability for connection to the Kilangans, as we have seen, but she remains primarily focused on herself and her (dis)comfort. (Contrast Leah: “Crowded together we moved… All of us shifting from foot to foot… the rest of us waited our turn,” pp. 299-300). Even Rachel’s physical position in the escape from the ants reflects this reality: “I simply floated like a stick in the river, carried along on everyone else’s power” (p. 302). She is as useless to the group effort as is Nathan’s (justly ignored) sermon. Unlike Leah, who runs alongside her neighbors, Rachel uses the word “neighbor”—“since I am their neighbor I thought surely they would want me with them” (p. 302)—but she has no true understanding of what it means to be a neighbor to another person. Given the importance of biblical allusions in the novel, Kingsolver’s repeated use of the word “neighbor” in the space of these few pages may be meant to bring to mind Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a neighbor is defined as a person who helps anyone in need (see Luke 10:25-37). Rachel is no good neighbor, expecting help rather than offering it. (To be fair, we do not see Leah offering help to her neighbors, either, but her inner disposition would seem to at least allow such action as a possibility, in contrast to Rachel.)
In a notable scene, Adah breaks her usual silence to cry out for help as Orleanna and Ruth May are leaving the house. Adah sees her mother “weighing [Adah’s] life,” as if to decide whether her crippled child is worth saving (p. 306). And while Orleanna tells Adah to follow, she and Adah both know that Adah is physically incapable of keeping up with a quickly moving crowd. When she falls and is trodden upon by the crowd, it is Anatole who rescues her, not her own mother—thus leading to mother and daughter’s awkward reunion in the boat: “She tried to hold my hands but could not. For the breadth of a river we stared without speaking” (p. 306). Adah knows, and will not forget, that she was, for all practical purposes, abandoned. That reality, exposed in a moment of crisis, will become “[c]urved into the permanent song of [her] body: left . . . behind” (p. 306). She has been left behind by both her mother and her twin sister. Readers may sense a further development of, not only a prophetic role, but also a martyr’s role for this character.
Ruth, for her part, is carried in Orleanna’s arms as far as the river. During the escape, she takes refuge as Nelson taught her: she thinks “of the safest place,” deciding, as she did when she was bedridden with malaria, that it is “a green mamba snake away up in the tree” (p. 304). She again imagines herself looking down on everyone else, “the whole world, Mama and everybody. The tribes of Ham, Shem, and Japheth all together. Finally you are the highest one of all” (p. 304). The passage may remind readers of previous intimations of mortalty surrounding Ruth.
Ultimately, the episode’s significance for Leah is that it marks “the night God turned his back on me” (p. 311). She angrily demands of Anatole, “When I walk through the valley of the shadow”—i.e., the shadow of death; cf. Psalm 23 in the King James translation—“the Lord is supposed to be with me, and he’s not! Do you see him here in this boat?” (p. 309). She does not consider, as some people of faith might, that “the Lord” may be with her in the person of Anatole or the other villagers—although, perhaps significantly, she does note that, at that moment, “The man or large woman whose back I’d been leaning against shifted…” (p. 309). Is this uncertain figure in some symbolic sense God who has “turned his back” on Leah just so she might rest against it? Leah does not consider this intriguing symbolic possibility. Her previous views, instilled in her by her father, about justice and righteousness and God’s rewards for faithfulness, have been completely shattered, it seems. She does not enjoy the lesson Anatole teaches: “When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky… There are more words in the world than no and yes” (p. 309-310).