Rachel Axelroot DuPrée Fairley (The Equatorial, January 1978)
Summary: Rachel’s marriage to the French diplomat ends in divorce, and her third marriage ends in her husband Remy’s death. Remy bequeaths to Rachel his luxury hotel, The Equatorial in the French Congo, which Rachel now devotes herself to running. She cannot understand why Leah will not visit her, or why she hardly ever hears from her sister. She frequently daydreams about a time when she can show off her hotel to her family. She thinks she would at last earn their respect.
Analysis: Rachel reaches new heights (or perhaps new lows!) of self-centered absorption in this chapter. Although the chapter begins with her advice, “don’t believe in fairy tales” (p. 460), it ends, ironically, with Rachel’s belief in an equally fictitious narrative: the idea that her family does not visit because they are “afraid they would have to start respecting” her (p. 464). Rachel clearly has no concept of the political realities shaping life in the Congo (now divided into the Republic of Congo, controlled by Mobutu; and the French Congo (which was officially disestablished in 1910; it is unclear, from a strictly historical perspective, exactly what Rachel is referring to; p. 460). She is completely engrossed in her own business affairs, oblivious to the wide gap between her experience and the daily experience of the poor Africans around her. She is able to pride herself on being “not one to leave anyone sitting out in the rain” (p. 462) by building a shelter for her rich clients’ chauffers, while remaining blind to the crushing poverty all around her. Her situation, in fact, is not all that different from the one in which the dictator Mobutu lives, as described by Leah in the previous chapter: Rachel, too, lives in opulence while the Africans around her live in squalor. She is surrounded by and jealous of her possessions—“My help would rob me blind,” she claims (p. 462), uncannily echoing her suspicions of the native help the Price family employed while still serving as a missionary family, and also ignorant of her willful “blindness” to the harsh realities of Congo life.
Rachel is also deluding herself about the realities of why her family does not come to visit. “Oh, I dreamed of a true class reunion of our family. Just imagine all their faces, if they saw this place. Which, I might add, none of them came” (p. 463). They do not come, of course, because they are not able to do so. Most notably, Leah and Anatole and their children are struggling to survive in Mobutu-controlled Congo; in fact, we will learn in the next chapter that Anataole has been imprisoned. It is by no means a matter, as Rachel thinks, that “Leah could not stoop to taking a bus” (p. 463). Leah is not the person who has imprisoned herself in an isolated illusion; that person is Rachel. She is still, after all these years, holding herself apart from, over and above, not only her family but also the extended human family. Especially telling in this regard is her comment regarding Leah and Anatole’s children, her own nephews: “I don’t see how those boys are any kin to me” (p. 464). Readers may again be uncomfortably reminded of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Rachel would clearly respond in the negative, since she refuses to take any responsibility for her life and her attitudes. “What happened to us in the Congo,” she rationalizes, “was simply the bad luck of two opposite worlds crashing into each other, causing tragedy” (p. 465). She is, of course, partially correct; but the tragedy is that, unlike Leah, Adah, and Orleanna, Rachel cannot (or will not) see the real cost of this conflict. Where Leah has correctly seen that there are no innocents, only the ignorant, Rachel believes she is knowledgeable and innocent, when she is neither. Notice also how causally she makes the potentially chilling revelation that she thinks she might have been able to save Ruth May: “There was just a minute there where maybe I could have grabbed her, but it happened so fast… you can’t possibly be in charge of people who will not give you the time of day, even in your own family. So I refuse to feel the slightest responsibility. I really do” (p. 465). And readers have no reason to doubt her ironic words. She refuses responsibility for her part in what happened in Kilanga; she refuses responsibility for her continued separation from her family, falsely laying the blame at everyone else’s feet; she refuses responsibility for doing anything to alleviate the suffering of those around her, ignoring it altogether instead behind the opulent walls of The Equatorial. “Honestly,” she complains, “there is no sense spending too much time alone in the dark” (p. 465)—and yet that phrase exactly describes Rachel’s current life. She is alone in a darkness she does not even know surrounds her.
Leah Price Ngemba (Kinshasa, Rainy Season, 1981)
Summary: As the family returns to Africa after a third trip to America, Anatole is arrested and imprisoned for life in Camp Ebeya (formerly called Camp Hardy), where Lumumba had been held and tortured. Leah struggles to raise her sons alone; Pascal and Patrice are now teenagers, and Martin is in continual need of comfort. Back in America, Orleanna works to raise money for a bribe that could get Anatole food and a reduced sentence of only five years. Leah writes letters both to her husband and to Adah, even though she knows neither recipient will likely ever see them.
Analysis: In this chapter, Leah concludes that “we’ve all ended up giving body and soul to Africa, one way or another” (p. 474). Anatole has given up his freedom for his efforts on behalf of securing his native land’s independence; the forces of the dictator Mobutu have arrested and imprisoned him, and Leah lives in fear that Anatole may have been jailed “for the last time” (p. 466), and that he will never be restored to her. Leah now realizes for the first time “how thoroughly I’ve relied on Anatole to justify and absolve me here” (p. 472). The chapter contrasts their life in Africa, as hard as it is, with their sojourns in the United States, a country, Anatole notes, “perfectly devoid of smells” (p. 467)—that is, America is an antiseptic society where evidence of real life is contained, hidden, suppressed in favor of a false society, as false in its own ways as Mobutu’s supposedly “authentic” society in Zaire is. America is marked, for Anatole and Leah, by “a vague, disinfected emptiness” (p. 468). Africa is her home now every bit as much as it is Anatole’s, and not even the hardship of Anatole’s imprisonment changes that truth. Even so, Anatole’s absence causes Leah to realize that for many years she had “the luxury of nearly forgetting I was white in a land of brown and black” (p. 472). His imprisonment confronts her again with the reality of foreigners’ sins against Africa, and how her white skin involves her in those transgressions, even though she is, personally, innocent of any crime. As Leah says, “we are all co-conspirators here” (p. 474).
Rachel Price (The Equatorial, 1984)
Summary: Leah, Adah, and Rachel reunite in Senegal, the immediate occasion being the delivery of a Land Rover from Africa (the needed funds having been raised by Orleanna) that Leah and Anatole will use, once Anatole is released from prison, in their work establishing a farm commune in Angola. Adah sails from America to Spain and then drives the Rover to West Africa, much to Rachel’s amazement. During their time together, Leah and Rachel argue a great deal about America’s culpability in the current state of African affairs. The sisters do make a stop to tour an ancient palace at Abomey. While in Abomey, Leah tells Rachel what she has heard of their father’s fate. Nathan had become the subject of wild rumors and tales over the years, including a story that he had five wives who left him. Ultimately, stubbornly refusing to give up on his plans to baptize the children of a particular village, Nathan, surrounded by the angry villagers, climbed an old tower from the colonial days, which the villagers set ablaze. Catching fire, Nathan jumped to his death. Adah remarks that his death mirrors the death of a transgressor at the conclusion of the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, a passage that Adah had to copy numerous times as “The Verse” as punishment for being slow. The girls realize that they, Ruth May and Orleanna must be the basis of the story of Nathan’s “five legendary wives.”
Analysis: Unsurprisingly, Rachel’s self-centeredness continues unabated throughout this chapter. She resents Leah’s concern for Anatole, thinking of herself as “a bereaved widow, practically” (p. 477), even when she was not, in fact, married to her latest lover, now deceased, Geoffrey. She has no sympathy (or capacity to see from another point of view) for Anatole’s imprisonment—“But really, if you commit a crime you have to pay the piper, what did [Leah] expect?” (p. 475)—because she benefits too much from the status quo of exploited, post-colonial Africa: “Leah started in about… what was happening with the latest payola schemes in Zaire, which between you and me is the only reason I have any customers at all on my side of the river, but I didn’t say so” (p. 489). She actually believes she is exhibiting virtue by remaining silent about how the injustices of Mobutu’s regime are benefiting her economically—and yet she can also complain (as ever) about her family’s perceived injustices against her: commenting on Orleanna’s charitable drive to raise the funds for Leah and Anatole’s Land Rover, Rachel grouses, “Mother’s group has never raised one red cent for me, to help put in upstairs plumbing at the Equatorial… But who’s complaining?” (p. 476). Never mind that Rachel is living in luxury while Africa around her suffers. At least her conscience seems pricked at some subconscious level as she tours a royal palace in Abomey. “Ancient Abomey, the Dahomean capital, holds about 20 Royal Palaces and palace estates, including the present Palace Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage monument” (http://agongointo.worldarchaeology.net/eng/03_abomey.html). In this palace, the sisters see bits of human bone in the wall. Rachel believes the story the tour guide tells them, that the bones are evidence of human sacrifice; Leah reserves judgment, speculating that the ancients “probably had ways of keeping their numbers in balance in times of famine” (p. 490). Either way, Rachel is unsettled, and perhaps it is because this luxurious palace for a king reflects her own situation at The Equatorial. “[T]hat palace was something else. It gave me the heebie-jeebies… I shook from head to toe, even though the day was quite warm” (p. 481). The palace is both beautiful and terrible, and its splendor obviously depends, in some way (whether the tour guide or Leah’s explanation is believed) on the lives of the ancient king’s subjects; in other words, the palace’s splendor is founded on death. Little wonder it causes Rachel to shiver—and no wonder her joke about needing “a throne with human skulls” for her hotel lobby falls flat. “This was no fairy-tale kingdom,” Rachel notes (p. 480)—and neither is her isolated life of luxury in The Equatorial, although she does not make the conscious connection between the two that readers can. Rachel’s way of life is, as Leah correctly perceives, founded on injustice: note, for instance, Rachel’s hesitation at letting Anatole come to The Equatorial: “But when I told her I had to think about it, Leah right away said, ‘Oh, no, don’t bother. You have your standards of white supremacy to uphold, don’t you?’” (p. 477). Despite having lived in Africa all these years, Rachel claims she is “proud to be an American” (p. 479); she hangs the flag in her hotel lobby and celebrates the Fourth of July every year, still turning a blind eye to the injustices her country has committed against the African people. She trusts the words of such leaders as Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan without investigating the truth for herself. Africa may be Rachel’s home, but she is not and never has been at home there (as her utter inability to recall most of the people of Kilanga demonstrates, pp. 482-84). “These horrible things had nothing to do with us,” she says of the sights at Abomey (p. 489), all the while convincing herself that the same is true of the horrible things going on in Mobutu’s Zaire. “I don’t even try to understand,” she says of her sisters’ conversations (p. 490)—unaware that her words are truer than she knows.
In some ways, then, Rachel emerges as very much like her father. Like the Rev. Price, Rachel stubbornly lives in a world centered around herself. In this chapter, we learn that Nathan met his death “still trying to baptize chidren” (p. 485), even despite what he eventually learned in Kilanga about the fear of the water. Ironically, Nathan became, in many Africans’ eyes, that fear itself: “He’d gotten a very widespread reputation for turning himself into a crocodile and attacking children” (p. 485). Not literally, of course, but, metaphorically, the statement is accurate, for, in his stubborn and prideful insistence on his “ministry” of baptism, Nathan was attacking Africa and its people, the way western imperialists so often have. Suitably, he burns in a tour de maître, “where in the old days the Belgian foreman would stand watching all the coffee pickers so he could single out which ones to whip at the end of the day” (p. 486). Nathan meets his end on a symbol of Western, authoritarian, imperialist interference and subjugation—much the program, really, by which he lived his life, even though he did so out of survivors’ guilt and wrapped it in the cloak of religion. His death reveals the situation plainly; it is, in that respect, apocalyptic. Fittingly, it is also “the final ‘The Verse’ in the Old Testament… If you include the Apocrypha, which of course he always did” (p. 487). The end of the Old Testament thus forms an appropriate end for the life of Nathan Price.
Adah Price (Atlanta, January 1985)
Summary: Returning from Africa to her work as a doctor in Atlanta, Adah visits Orleanna to tell her about the sisters’ reunion and about Nathan’s death. Orleanna tells Adah that no one in America has ever spoken to her about what happened to the family in Africa—not even about Ruth May’s death. Adah’s ability to talk openly with her mother about these topics preserves her sense of herself as a truth-teller, seeing the world in ways others call “crooked” but which she knows to be correct.
Analysis: The chapter opens with a quotation (already alluded to in the previous chapter) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest—entirely appropriate, given that the events that overtook the Price family in Africa have been described in stormy terms (e.g., Orelanna: “the Congo… prepared to roll over us like a river… I only ever saw the gathering clouds,” p. 98). Adah uses the poem to metaphorically describe how each of the surviving Price women have come to live with the memory of Nathan, from Rachel’s simple appropriation of (one of the novel’s strongest recurring symbols) his “pale white eyes around her neck so she can look in every direction and ward off the attack” (p. 491)—meaning, perhaps, that, like Nathan, she sees Africa but does not see it clearly, does not accept it on its own terms but, instead, tries to mold it to fit her preconceived view of the world—to Leah’s taking of “it all—bones, teeth, scalp” (p. 491) in order to build a life for herself in Africa that, perhaps out of guilt for her father’s failings (the image of a “hair shirt” is one associated with medieval rites of penitence, p. 491), actually does engage Africa on its own terms—to Orleanna’s “elaborate” “fabrication,” her complicated response to her past with Nathan. As she explains to Adah, no one in Bethlehem, Georgia ever asked her about her family’s experiences in Africa upon her return, including Ruth’s death: “The sins of the father are not discussed” (p. 495). Orleanna has therefore had to express herself in other, unconventional ways, as Adah rightly sees: “she constantly addresses the ground under her feet. Asking forgiveness. Owning, disowning, recanting, recharting a hateful course of events to make sense of her complicity” (p. 492). Here again, Kingsolver’s novel returns to the theme of guilt and innocence. Neither state seems to exist in its pure form in the Price family history—nor, indeed, in any other; as Adah states, “All human odes are essentially one: ‘My life: what I stole from history, and how I live with it’” (p. 492). This is the great integrative task that must occur in order to live and thrive. For Adah’s part, she is physically thriving, walking “without any noticeable limp” (p. 492). And while she initially fears that her physical wholeness means an impairment of her unique perspective upon the world (her “slant”), by the chapter’s end she realizes that she is capable of forging the narrative of her own choosing. “What you have to lose is your story, your slant” (p. 495), but Adah avoids this danger (as Rachel, for example, has not) by acknowledging the past, with all its flaws and wrongs (in contrast to Mobutu’s program of “authenticity” in which “[a]ll the old injuries have been renamed,” p. 495), and integrating it into her present. She openly and honestly discusses Nathan, for instance, when no one else will: “I despised him. He was a despicable man” (p. 495). It is this kind of truth telling for which Adah has always been known (“You could always call a spade a spade,” p. 496), not least by herself; and it is this capacity for seeing and speaking truth that preserves Adah’s “slant”: “Tall and straight I may appear, but I will always be Ada inside. A crooked little person trying to tell the truth” (p. 496).
Leah Price Ngemba (Kimvula District, Zaire, 1986)
Summary: Leah and Anatole’s fourth child and fourth son, Nataniel, is born as the family is driving in the Land Rover, moving from Kinshasa to a farm in the Kimvula District, near the Angolan border, where they will work with farmers to establish a soybean cooperative. Although “Taniel,” as they call him, experiences some difficulty nursing and breathing immediately after birth, he recovers, becoming quite a hungry infant, constantly nursing at Leah’s breast. The family is making plans to move to Angola as soon as possible, but that may not happen any time soon; they have been planning the exodus for a decade already, following Anatole’s last imprisonment, and hoping to avoid any further entanglements with Mobutu’s forces and oppressive policies. Leah saw the fatal cycle of Western intervention in Africa starting over again in Angola, as the United States shipped weapons to an opposition leader fighting the elected president, Agostinho Neto; but she remains hopeful, because, even though land mines from the conflict still claim victims, now “the Americans are losing in Angola,” and Leah is determined to find a place where she and her family can truly be at home.
Analysis: As it has throughout the novel, knowledge of historical context continues to inform Kingsolver’s tale. Angola had become one more pawn in the Cold War struggle between capitalism and communism, as the Congo had before it. As a mother, of course, Leah’s concerns are much more immediate: the safety and health of her children. She remembers her “first stammering definition of communism to Anatole” all those years before in Kilanga: “They do not fear the Lord, and they think everybody should have the same kind of house. From where I’m standing [now]… it’s hard to fathom the threat” (pp. 505-06). In other words, Leah has experienced firsthand the evils of capitalistic Western meddling in Africa, for she seen how it ruined lives—and not just the lives of Africans: “Every dollar [spent by the United States to topple Angola’s free government]… had to come from some person, a man or woman. How does this happen? They think of it as commerce…” (p. 503). In the name of commerce, in the name of money, human lives on both sides of the world have been endangered and degraded, although of course the toll has been far more physical in Africa. And so it is that Leah can agree with Rachel that she has been brainwashed by Communism: “I’ve been won to the side of schoolteachers and nurses, and lost all allegiance to plastic explosives” (p. 503). In sum, Leah values people over things, and lives over ideologies. Her family bears a superficial resemblance to her family of origin, with her and Anatole’s four boys mirroring Orleanna and Nathan’s four girls; but where Nathan could only be judged as an unfit father, Leah can only be judged a more than fit mother: “If God is someone who thinks of me at all,” she reflects, “he must think of me as a mother. Scraping fiercely for food and shelter, mad entirely for love, by definition” (p. 499). And in this identity she finds a connection with her mother, just as Adah did in the previous chapter: as Leah prays to the fire (the immediate and necessary source of light and warmth, as opposed to the more abstract “light and warmth” preached by her father as supposedly coming from God) over the sick infant Nathaniel, “I could actually hear Mother’s breath and her words… Mother and I prayed together” (p. 499). And, like Orleanna on Sanderling Island, Leah in Africa is seeking forgiveness from her offspring (even though her boys do not hold her or their maternal grandmother responsible for America’s sins): “for how many generations must we be forgiven by our children?” (p. 502). The lament cannot help but haunt attentive readers of Kingsolver’s novel, as the events grow closer to our own time and confront us with the ongoing repercussions of America’s exportation of a “poisonwood gospel” to Africa. The Rev. Price simply typified how America as a whole never understood that “everything you thought you knew means something different in Africa” (p. 505)—and both lands, both peoples, are still paying the price.
BOOK SIX: SONG OF THE THREE CHILDREN
The title of this “book” of Kingsolver’s novel is taken from the Apocryphal book of the same name. The Song of the Three Children is the hymn of praise sung by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they were thrown into King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace after refusing to worship his golden idol, as related in the third chapter of the canonical book of Daniel. In the context of Kingsolver’s novel, of course, the “three children” who “sing” in this section are the three surviving Price children, now adults. The epigraph for this book, from verses 7-19 of the Song, suggests that the Price daughters will be looking back over their lives, much as their mother has done at the outset of previous “books” in the novel (this is the first such division to lack a reflective chapter from Orleanna). “All that you have brought upon us, and all that you have done to us, You have done in justice…” (p. 507). Readers may expect to find Leah, Adah, and Rachel looking for meaning in and coming to final terms with the events of their lives.
Rachel Price, The Equatorial
Summary: Rachel marks her 50th birthday by herself in her hotel’s lounge, reflecting on her life and how she, in her mind, has struggled against poor odds in order to emerge as a survivor.
Analysis: In contrast to the long ago “sweet sixteen” in Kilanga when her mother, in vain, tried to bake Rachel a birthday cake, this birthday 36 years later in Africa does not find Rachel even attempting to celebrate. Instead, she makes it “through that day without telling a soul” (p. 511). The years have passed, but Rachel is no more mature than she was all those years before. She still harbors deep racial prejudice—e.g., “I still expect every plank of this place to be carried off by my own help” (p. 511)—although she would never admit it. She still blames everyone but herself for what has transpired in her life, refusing to accept responsibility for her choices: “sometimes life doesn’t give you all that many chances at being good” (p. 515). And she still clings to her self-centered philosophy of living, gleaned from the disaster manual she read while a teenager: “try to climb up on the person nearby so their body will cushion your landing… stick your elbows hard into the ribs of your neighbors to wedge yourself in, then pick up your feet so you won’t get trampled” (p. 516). The chapter is a fine display of Kingsolver’s command of irony, for at multiple points Rachel speaks truer than she knows or intends. “I have created my own domain,” she virtually crows, “I call the shots” (p. 511). And indeed she does, but she continues to do so at the expense of any real connection to any other human being. The fact that she experiences managing the Equatorial Hotel as “running a whole little country” (p. 512) drives home the uncomfortable (for the readers, not for Rachel!) parallel that Kingsolver has previously established between Rachel and Mobutu: both are dictators in their respective realms, building fortunes on the pain and misery of their fellow human beings, for whom, like Cain in Scripture, they abdicate any responsibility. For all this, readers can see that, in some ways, Rachel is like Orleanna: rather than ever leaving her life in Africa, “when push comes to shove [she] was always afraid” (p. 513). She never reached a moment, as did her mother, where she simply put one foot in front of the other and kept walking (as Orleanna has described her eventual departure from Nathan and Africa both). And this chapter also contains Rachel’s stark admission, “I’m no good at play-acting… [I] blurt out my own true feelings” (p. 513). To that extent, then, Rachel has some small measure of integrity. She also sees correctly what her father never could: “You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back” (p. 515).
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