The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 4:part 3
Adah, Leah, Adah, Rachel (pp. 360-367)
Summary: The Price sisters and Nelson return to the chicken house the next morning to see what, if anything, their trap has captured. Adah sees footprints of someone who was dancing in the ashes, a dancer with six toes on his left foot—Tata Kuvudundu. Inside the chicken house, a green mamba snake has wrapped itself around the two hens and their eggs. It quickly shoots out of the chicken house and bites Ruth May’s left shoulder. The venom acts quickly, and Ruth May dies. The girls prepare to tell their parents.
Analysis: This quick succession of four chapters—much like the montage of brief chapters regarding the night of the ants toward the end of Book Three—all work together to provide several vantage points on a single event. Here we learn that Ruth is the Price girl who does not survive the family’s African sojourn. The novel’s many anticipations of mortality and notes of foreboding, highlighted throughout this commentary, have been pointing to this development. Tata Kuvudundu, the village nganga (or traditional priest, whom we have often heard the Rev. Price dismiss as a “witch doctor”), “brought the snake in a basket or carried it stunned or charmed like a gift in his own two hands” (p. 362), apparently intending to kill Nelson, who usually sleeps in the Prices’ chicken house. Readers do not yet know with certainty why Tata Kuvudundu would want Nelson dead, but we can assume he is motivated by anger at Nelson’s close relationship to the Prices—indeed, Leah says she knows Nelson loves Ruth: “I’ve seen how he sings to her and protects her” (p. 363); and we can assume Tata Kuvudundu has seen this, too—and the act may even be an attempt to reinforce the traditional ways among the villagers in the face of the change and chaos resulting from the village’s several “elections,” the participation of Leah in the hunt, and the near-riot that ruined the traditional division of the food thereafter. We saw, in the previous chapter, that Nelson, for his part, still believed very much in the traditions of his people: he insisted that what he had seen outside the chicken house was “not just ordinary shadows” but an ill omen, “the dreaming of snakes” (p. 357). Now we know Nelson was right to be afraid, not because of supernatural forces, but because of one man’s malevolent intent, whatever his motivations. Adah quotes a book about snakes when describing the green mamba: “In this serpent the diabolic genius of nature has attained the highest degree of perfection” (p. 362). This is certainly true, given the swiftness and lethal power with which the snake strikes Ruth: no one else sees it happen, and she dies almost instantly. But the snake, again, is a traditional symbol of craftiness and evil in Western literature (see Genesis 3), and the true “diabolic genius” behind this episode is Tata Kuvudundu.
In the context of Kingsolver’s novel, however, recall that the green mamba snake has also been serving as Ruth May’s symbol for herself. When she was bedridden with malaria, and when Nelson gave her the amulet that he said would shield her from evil and death, she imagined herself as a snake in the trees, watching the people left on the earth below. Significantly, then, the reason no one sees the snake bite Ruth is not simply because the snake is moving quickly. As Leah reports, “strangely enough, we all looked up at the treetops… Just for the moment it was as if [Ruth had] disappeared, and her voice was thrown into the trees. Then she returned to us, but all that was left of her was an awful silence” (p. 363). Ruth’s own descriptions—intimations?—of her death have come to pass as she earlier described.
Kingsolver’s technique of narrating this event through brief, nearly simultaneous chapters gives the advantage of highlighting each sister’s unique reaction to it. Adah’s fascination with palindromes continues as she watches her sister die: “I was not present at Ruth May’s birth but I have seen it now, because I saw each step of it played out in reverse at the end of her life” (p. 365). Leah feels guilt: “In my panic I shook her hard… and screamed at her. Maybe that was the last she knew of her sister Leah” (p. 364). And Rachel reflects, much as she did after the hunt, on how her world has again forever changed: “Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened” (p. 367). Now, of course, that will be an impossibility: “All the other people in the whole wide world might go on about their business, but for us it would never be normal again” (p. 366).
Summary: Orleanna makes a shroud of the mosquito netting around the girls’ beds for Ruth May’s body, which she carefully and tenderly washes; while Nathan can only respond to his daughter’s death by observing that Ruth was not yet baptized. After the bath, Orleanna and the girls move Ruth’s body outside, where it lies on a table. Orleanna then begins moving all the Prices’ furniture and material belongings into the yard, to give them away to the villagers. As the goods are distributed, a rainstorm gathers and breaks, giving much needed relief to the drought-stricken village. Nathan preaches that the rainstorm is God’s doing, and he uses the falling rainwater to baptize each child of the village, “imploring the living progeny of Kilanga to walk forward into the light.”
Analysis: “My father was a simple, ugly man” (p. 368). Such is Leah’s current judgment upon the man she idealized and idolized at the novel’s beginning. She now sees Nathan as “narrow-witted and without particular dreams” (p. 369). Her lack of connection to her earthly father, of course, correlates symbolically to the lack of connection she feels to any idea of a Heavenly Father. (Even here, then, we see a similar conflation of the two, as we have with Adah.) “Our father seemed to be nowhere,” says Leah (p. 372). In the immediate context, she is speaking of Nathan; but she as may well be speaking of God: “I could not remotely believe any Shepherd was leading me through this dreadful valley,” she reflects as she recites Psalm 23 and other Bible verses by rote, simply to cope with her grief (p. 372).
As Nathan loses respect in her eyes, Orleanna seems to gain some, for “Mother alone among us” responds to Ruth’s death directly and with dignity. The through and deliberate washing she gives Ruth’s body, “bath[ing] Ruth May with a washcloth as if she were a baby” (p. 369), could, ironically, be construed as a “baptism” of sorts. Leah does not (consciously) make this connection, but her imagining of Ruth as a newborn at this point suggests the traditional baptismal connotations of rebirth and new life. Ruth has died, but—as she seemed to intuit when sick with malaria, and as her sisters’ sudden upward glances at the moment of her death all suggest—she has been, in a sense, “reborn” to “new life,” somewhere above, watching over her family and the people of Kilanga. (Although note that Leah calls this assumption into question: “The sounds of our voices rose up through the tree branches into the sky, but Ruth May did not,” p. 371—she does not physically rise, but whether she spiritually rises, as understood in Christian or Kilangan or any other terms, may remain to the reader to decide.) Additionally, of course, Leah does not see the washing as a baptism because it evokes some painful memories for her: “I stood with my back to the wall, remembering too much of another time,” when Orleanna washed Ruth while Ruth actually was a baby (p. 369). Leah states she and Adah were not “jealous” of Ruth, “but still I had to wonder if [Orleanna] had ever loved me that much. With twins, she could only have loved each of us by half. And Adah was the one who required more of her” (p. 369). So although Orleanna’s reaction to Ruth’s death strikes Leah as efficient and useful, in contrast to her father’s “useless hands” (p. 369), it still brings her conflicted feelings toward her mother to the fore. Because Orleanna bathes the dead Ruth in private, “she had caused me to disappear,” Leah feels (p. 370).
It is not only Leah’s connection to her father that is finally severed in this chapter, but also her connection to the material goods—and, perhaps by symbolic extension, the Western way of life they represent—that the family brought to Kilanga. “All these things,” she observes, “seemed like objects I hadn’t seen before” (p. 370). All the things the Price women carried, even smuggled, into Africa are now given away freely. This ironic reversal may imply that Ruth May’s death will have salvific power in Kilanga, for it breaks whatever remaining attachment to their material belongings and their Western way of life, with life-giving results for Kilanga. “Eventually they took what they needed, and left” (p. 372). What are luxuries for this Western family become necessities for their African neighbors.
Nathan’s baptism of the Kilangan children in the rainstorm is what Nathan would have regarded as the pinnacle of his ministry in Africa, but it has been rendered hollow by Ruth’s death. As Leah correctly observes, “He knew nothing about the children” (p. 374), and his act of baptizing them in the rain smacks of desperation. Perhaps understandably so, for he truly believes his youngest child is lost to God for want of having been baptized; and he does not want to lose any more souls. Even here, however, his focus is on himself, and not on the people he has ostensibly come to serve. As it has throughout the novel, Nathan’s focus remains relentlessly on himself. The children, however, know who has truly touched them and ministered to them, as they chant the refrain Ruth taught while playing with them: “Mah-dah-mey-I?” (p. 375). They call this dead little girl their mother. It is a stunning and compelling scene, a haunting conclusion to this penultimate book of Kingsolver’s novel.