The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 5:part 1
Book FIVE: EXODUS
Orleanna Price, Sanderling Island, Georgia
Summary: Almost having finished telling her story to her dead daughter Ruth, Orleanna describes the relief she felt as the people of Kilanga carried away her family’s material possessions. She also reflects on how she found herself leaving her husband: not so much by deliberate choice as by the compulsion of the necessity to keep moving forward, while Nathan stood still.
Analysis: The title of the fifth book in Kingsolver’s “pentateuch” takes its name from the second book of the biblical Pentateuch, Exodus. A Greek word, “exodus” literally means “way out.” Biblically speaking, the Exodus refers specifically to the God of Israel’s deliverance of his people from their slavery in Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. Readers can expect that this portion of Kingsolver’s novel will detail the Price family’s departure from Africa, an expectation quickly confirmed by this chapter, beginning as it does with Orleanna’s words, “As long as I kept moving…” (p. 381). This chapter seems as though it will describe how Orleanna finally broke free of her oppressive marriage to Nathan. Orleanna does not quite frame the issue in that way, however: “It didn’t occur to me to leave Nathan on account of unhappiness… [I]t happened finally by the grace of hell and brimstone”—a symbolic depiction of Nathan’s destructive influence upon his family—“that I had to keep moving. I moved, and he stood still” (p. 384). In this paradigm, Nathan and Orleanna’s marriage again mirrors and reflects the larger historic and political context in which they live. Of Nathan, Orleanna reflects, “[H]is kind will always lose in the end… Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them” (p. 384). Orleanna sees this dynamic at work in the biblical Exodus, as the oppressed Hebrews departed out of Egypt; and she sees the same dynamic at work in the Congo. “The Congo River… drowned most of its conquerors outright… Africa swallowed the conqueror’s music and sang a new song of her own” (p. 385). After this chapter, readers can expect that we will see Orleanna, too, “singing a new song” (a biblical phrase, reminding us again of Kingsolver’s affinity for biblical allusions in this novel; e.g., Ps. 96:1, 144:9). We also, however, must expect that—as Orleanna has been telling us since her first chapter—she and Africa will forever be connected. The flesh of her flesh, her dead daughter Ruth, is buried in Nathan’s demonstration garden; and this raises existential questions of identity: “Are you still my own flesh and blood, my last-born, or are you now the flesh of Africa?... Try to imagine what never happened: our family without Africa, or the Africa that would have been without us” (p. 385). Such imaginings are, of course, ultimately impossible; reality prevails. The stories and fates of Africa and the Prices will, for better and/or for worse, be forever intertwined. The connection the family was for so long unable to make with the people of Kilanga has now, by Ruth’s death, become an inescapable truth with which all must reckon.
“What We Carried Out”
Leah Price (Bulungu, Late Rainy Season, 1961)
Summary: Orleanna and her daughters leave Kilanga on foot, leaving Nathan behind, making their way through the torrential downpour and through mosquito swarms to the small village of Kiala. They take with them only what they can carry on their backs. On that first night, Leah lies awake, listening to the rain, wondering how she could ever leave Africa after all she has experienced there. On the third day of their exodus from Kilanga, she contracts malaria, and thus has no clear memory of the family’s arrival in Bulungu (a town in southern Congo), where a large political meeting is being rumored to take place. Eeben Axelroot is there; as Leah watches Orleanna talk about him taking Rachel away, Leah, in her fever delirium, thinks she sees Axelroot take on a devilish appearance. Anatole is also in Bulungu, and he patiently nurses Leah back to health. Weeks pass, and she recovers; Rachel leaves Africa; and Orleanna and Adah leave, too, driven out of town on the back of a banana truck (the driver stands to collect a large reward for delivering white foreigners safely to the Leopoldville embassy). Leah stays with Anatole, and the two eventually make plans to marry.
Analysis: Having reached its climax with Ruth May’s death, the violent rainstorm and Orleanna’s decision to put “one foot ahead of the other” and leave Nathan (p. 392), the novel now begins its falling action as we start to learn of how the various Price women left Africa—all except Leah. As Leah reflects that first night of their journey out of Kilanga, “How could I follow my mother out of here now, and run away from what we’d done? But after what we’d done, how could I stay?” (p. 394). What “they have done,” in Leah’s mind, seems to be a fundamental rejection of their fellow human beings, as her dream suggests: as she sees, in her dreams, African children begging her for something, as they did when the family first arrived in Book One, Leah tells them, “But I’ve brought nothing to give you… [M]y heart took me down like a lead weight, for no matter whether these words were true or false, they were terrible and wrong” (p. 394). Leah does not believe that she can now turn her back again on Africa and its people, after she and her family kept distant from them for so long. While Nathan doggedly pursued his mission of converting them, insisting that the Kilangans become like Westerners, Leah has been “converted” and has become like them. We see this most clearly in this chapter as Leah experiments with carrying her water on her head: “To my great surprise I found I could keep it there as long as I had one hand on it. In all our time in the Congo I’d been awestruck by what the ladies could carry this way, but had never once tried it myself. What a revelation, that I could carry my own parcel like any woman here! After the first several miles I cased to feel the weight on my head at all” (p. 390). The action of carrying the parcel on her head symbolizes Leah’s integration into Africa, and more specifically her emergence as a woman in Africa. It is not a complete or total integration, to be sure; as she reflects while she and Anatole discuss their future marriage, she is still in some sense “other”: “Even now, I think Anatole’s friends doubt his sanity. My whiteness could bar him outright from many possibilities, maybe even survival, in the Congo” (p. 401). But, to a large extent, her choice to stay with Anatole does represent her acculturation to and assimilation into African life. As she says, and as we have seen throughout the novel, she has chosen Africa in the same way that she has chosen Anatole: “Anatole didn’t take me: I chose him” (p. 400); “Anatole had no choice. I took him and held on. There’s enough of my father in me that I had to stand my ground” (p. 401). Leah’s words show that she has discovered that, for her, deliverance from Africa means giving herself freely to Africa. “By Anatole I was shattered and assembled, by way of Anatole I am delivered not out of my life but through it” (p 399). She has found her “truest truth” (béene-béene, the new name Anatole gave her, p. 396).
Rachel Price Axelroot (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1962)
Summary: When Axelroot finds the Price family, Rachel agrees to testify that he saved her “from imminent prospect of death” in order to be flown out of the Congo; that way, Axelroot can collect a reward for rescuing her. She says goodbye (she thinks—she has no clear memory of doing so) and flies away with Axelroot, eventually taking his name and living with him, though not yet marrying him (Axelroot tells her it would look unseemly for him to collect a reward for rescuing his own wife), in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Rachel enjoys socializing in the company of well-to-do white women. She and Axelroot do not have a close relationship, and Rachel even suspects that he may be cheating on her, but she is so glad to be out of the Congo that she tolerates the situation.
Analysis: In contrast to her sister Leah, who, in so many important ways, joins native African society, Rachel, although she physically remains in Africa, emotionally and mentally and socially continues to separate herself from it. She lives, after all, in the capital of South Africa during its era of apartheid, the legally enforced segregation of whites and blacks. But this political situation does not trouble Rachel; indeed, she welcomes it: “Oh, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says—although she allows that, to get out of the Congo, “I would have signed a deal with the Devil himself” (p. 404). She is quite happy to be living a comfortable, suburban life: “Cars, even! Telephones! White people just everywhere you looked” (p. 404). The novel’s thematic concern with the reversals anticipated in the Kingdom of God—the lofty being brought low and the humble being exalted; the rich being punished while the poor are vindicated—loom in the background as Rachel describes the privileged ease of her new life: “I’ve always made sure I go to church with the very best people”—as opposed to the poor, humbled and broken people of Kilanga who made up her father’s congregation—“and we get invited to their parties. I insist on that. I have even learned to play bridge! It is my girlfriends here in Joburg”—how quickly she adopts the familiar nickname for the city; how quickly she becomes an “insider,” over and against the “outsiders,” the native black population of South Africa deprived of rights and dignity under the system of apartheid—“that have taught me how to give parties, keep a close eye on the help”—the black help, of course—“and just overall make the graceful transition to wifehood and adulteration” (p. 405). Rachel’s malapropism (she evidently means “adulthood”) takes on added significance given her suspicions that Axelroot is cheating on her with other women (although he may not technically be committing “adultery,” even though the two of them are not married), but also because the word simply implies unfaithfulness—in Rachel’s case, to her fellow human beings, the native black population of South Africa—and also impurity (as in “unadulterated,” not modified by the addition of extraneous substances). (Indeed, her other malapropism in this chapter—substituting the word “monotony” for matrimony, p. 405—may suggest that Rachel herself would not be above seeking other men’s sexual companionship, given the opportunity.) Rachel is living an impure life, focused on herself alone (note how she cannot even recall if she said goodbye to her family; “I’m sure I said good-bye… though I really don’t remember giving a second thought to when I would see them again, if ever,” p. 406) and others who are just like her (“We girls stick together like birds of a feather,” p. 405); but she does not see her situation this way. Indeed, she seems to view her current state as compensation for her experiences in Kilanga. She may be able to recite John 3:16, a verse about God loving the world, in Afrikaans and French (p. 402), but it is clear, unfortunately, that Rachel does not share that love. On the other hand, she may not be completely without regrets: she remembers that she left her hope chest behind in Kilanga, and concludes, “I guess you might say my hopes never got off the ground” (p. 406). In other words, she knows she has settled for less than the best life that might have been available to her; but her new life in Johannesburg seems to be a compromise with which she is making her peace.
Adah Price (Emory University, Atlanta, 1962)
Summary: The banana merchant who gave Orleanna and Adah a ride on the back of his truck changed his mind, and put them off again, forcing mother and daughter to walk for two days, hungry and exposed, before getting a ride with soldiers to the Belgian embassy. From there, the two are flown back to the United States, where Orleanna begins the work of rebuilding their lives. For her part, Orleanna begins by planting a lush botanical garden at their new home (purchased with an inheritance from her father); for hers, Adah takes the risk of beginning to speak with the outside world. She applies and is accepted to Emory University, after which she plans to study medicine.
Analysis: “I have decided to speak,” Adah says in this chapter, because “Mother seems to have gone mute” (p. 407). Where Orleanna retreats into the teeming and vibrant garden that she plants—“She was an entire botanical garden waiting to happen,” Adah observes (p. 410), in contrast to the purely functional and didactic gardens planted by her father (“useful foods, all the Glory of God and so forth,” pp. 409-410)—Adah “blossoms” in a different way by opening up to outsiders, especially the admissions officer at Emory University, whom she impresses with her intelligence and determination. Adah’s unique perspective on life now serves her well—even though, on her entrance exam, she misses questions about words that do not belong in a series: “Given my own circumstances, I find that anything can turn out to belong nearly anywhere” (p. 409). This innate ability to see a place to belong and to grow gives readers hope for Adah’s future. We also have hope for her future relationship with her mother. Even though it is a relationship shared mostly in silence, Adah now realizes that, once her mother knew she could only bring one child alive out of the Congo, she chose Adah. It is the reversal of the night of the ants, and Adah appreciates it as such: “Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads or tails with salvation on the other side” (p. 414).