The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 1:part 3

Average Overall Rating: 4.5
Total Votes: 548


Summary: The Rev. Price begins planting a demonstration garden outside the Price home. Leah helps him cultivate the ground and plant the seeds. Mama Bekwa Tataba, a native woman hired to work at the house by the previous missionary, the Catholic priest Brother Fowles, insists that Nathan and Leah are going about their task all wrong, and overnight, unbeknownst to them, she reshapes the soil of their garden into burial mound-like hills, as she had told the Prices to do. The next morning, however, Leah and her father undo Mama Tataba’s work, returning to their Western plan of seeds planted in neat rows. 
Analysis: Nathan’s injury as he uproots the poisonwood tree—a “poisonous dioecious tree (Metopium toxiferum) of southern Florida and the West Indies, having pinnately compound leaves, yellow-green flowers clustered in axillary panicles, and yellow-orange drupes” which “causes a rash on contact” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)—can perhaps be seen as either natural consequence or (divine?) retribution for his arrogance and stubbornness. The incident also marks the first appearance of one of the key words in the novel’s title, of course, and so no doubt should be borne in mind by readers as they continue the book, marked as a key symbolic and interpretive moment in the text. However many layers of meaning it bears may not yet be apparent, but at the very least the poisonwood tree—Mama Tataba “emphasiz[es] the descending syllables as if she were equally tired of all three” (p. 39)—can represent (not unlike the okapi) an Africa untamed, unconquered, unyielding to outsiders’ misguided beliefs about what and how it should be. And Nathan Price does have very definite ideas about what Africa should be: he wants to plant his garden as an “African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence… flowing outward across the Congo” (p. 36). Leah also describes the planned garden as “a small, square dominion over the jungle” (p. 38)—Kingsolver’s first callback to the epigraph of Book One, Genesis 1:28: “subdue [the earth] and have dominion” over it (p. 1). Nathan is confusing dominion, or responsible stewardship, with outright domination; he tells Mama Tataba he is “cultivating the soil” (p. 39), but Leah speaks more truth when she describes him as “attacking” it (p. 38). All is justified in Nathan’s own mind because, as Leah says, he believes he “needs permission only from the Saviour, who obviously is all in favor of subduing the untamed wilderness for a garden” (p. 36). And, granted, the Bible sometimes speaks of God’s work of salvation with the metaphor of gardening (e.g., Isa. 5:1-4; Matt. 21:33ff). Nathan, however, seems to appropriate a larger share of God’s work as his own than is fitting. The aim of growing food for the Congo may be worthy in itself, but Nathan’s motivations (with which, in this chapter, Leah sympathizes) render the project suspect, tainted by self-aggrandizement: “The grace of our good intentions,” says Leah, “made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes” (p. 36). He is unaware of the irony of asserting in a “confident” manner, “Leah, our world is full of mystery” (p. 40)—should, or even can, one be truly confident in the face of mystery? 
This chapter highlights interesting comparisons and contrasts between Nathan Price and Mama Bekwa Tataba. Nathan is a literal father; “Mama” Tataba is a mother figure (as Ruth will say in a future chapter, “the women are all Mama Something, even if they don’t have children,” p. 51). Kingsolver seems to be setting the characters up as different models of parental authority. They are both symbolically “crowned”: Mama Tataba carries a tub that is described as “a great, levitating crown” on her head (p. 39), while Nathan’s close-cut red hair forms a “tousled crown, where Mother lets it grow longer” (p. 40)—both characters at least assert some kind of dominance in their circumstances. Most strikingly, both characters have one good eye and one bad. Yet the Rev. Price and Mama Tataba see the world around them quite differently: he sees it as a sinful wilderness to be subjugated and struggled against; she sees it, simply, as what it is, and knows how to live in harmony with it. 
Brother Fowles, the Christian missionary previous to the Prices, who labored in Kilanga for six years (one year shy of seven years, perhaps a symbolic indicator of his unfinished, almost-perfected work, seven being the symbolic number of perfection—and “seven years” also evoking the story of Jacob laboring for Laban seven years for Leah and seven years for Rachel), for instance, seems to have seen Africa and his task there in a very different light than do the Prices. Nathan dismisses the now absent Fowles as a “plumb crazy” “Yankee” who “consort[ed] with the inhabitants of the land” in “unconvential alliances” (p. 38). Readers do not yet know any of the details of Fowles’ time in Kilanga; however, this description of him might mask the truth that Fowles was a far more effective missionary than the Rev. Price will be. Perhaps he, unlike Nathan, acclimated himself to Kilanga, living among the people he came to serve as one of them, not “set apart” from them (Leah uses this phrase, p. 35; it is the literal definition of the word “holy,” but, in this missionary circumstance, setting oneself apart as opposed to engaging with the natives does not seem to advance holy ends—most of the Price women, according to Leah, are so set apart that they are “scared to set foot outside the house,” p. 35). Perhaps Kingsolver will yet reveal that Brother Fowles did, in fact, “backslide” (p. 39); in the meantime, readers should suspend judgment, remaining open to the possibility that he lived a different kind of Christian life among the villagers.
As she narrates this chapter, Leah evidences an idealization at best and an idolization at worst of her father: “Father had the job of his life cut out for him, bringing the Word to a place like this. I wanted to throw my arms around his weary neck and pat down his rumpled hair” (p. 40). Or: “He had been singled out for a life of trial, as Jesus was. Being always the first to spot flaws and transgressions, it falls upon Father to deliver penance” (pp. 41-42). Or again: “I know that someday, when I’ve grown large enough in the Holy Spirit, I will have his wholehearted approval” (p. 42). Such passages do not sound as though they describe a healthy father-daughter relationship. They not only possess a potentially disturbing erotic and incestuous subtext but also alert readers to Leah’s sense of inferiority to Nathan. Children inevitably, for a time, view their parents as godlike figures; but readers must wonder why Leah, now entering puberty (“still getting used to the embarrassment of having the monthly visits” of menstruation, p. 37), clings to the strong identification she makes between her father and Jesus. “Not everyone can see” her father’s ostensibly large and gracious heart (certainly we readers have seen little evidence of it to this point), but “he’s seen about everything” (p. 42). She sees her father as all-seeing, all-wise, all-loving and all-powerful. Surely, although Nathan is no doubt as much an admixture of good and bad as any mortal, Leah does not see her father as he truly is. Readers cannot help but fear a disillusionment will come in time.
Summary: In need of something to galvanize his congregation, the Rev. Price declares the Fourth of July to be Easter Sunday (since the Western calendar matters not to the Congolese anyway). He designs an Easter pageant, but very few people attend—mostly his own family and the men acting the parts of the Roman soldiers. He lures a larger crowd to the shores of the Kwilu River with a picnic of fried chicken prepared by Orleanna; but the event does not turn into the impressive scene of mass baptism for which he had hoped. 
Analysis: In this chapter, Rachel narrates the events of “counterfeit Easter Sunday” (p. 45) with a complete lack of perspective on her material status relative to the people of Kilanga (appropriately enough for a character previously described as worldly and tiresome!). She makes much of her lack of new clothes for “Easter” and of her worries about what she will do when her one bottle of Breck Special Formulated shampoo runs out without any appreciation of the poverty in which the people around her are living. She resents the villagers’ attendance at the picnic solely because food is provided. “They seem to think we are Santa Claus, the way the children come around begging us for food and things every single day—and us as poor as church mice!” (p. 47). She fails to grasp the fact that, relative to the Kilangans’ standard of living, the Prices are a wealthy family indeed. 
The Rev. Price’s transposition of Easter from its customary date to July 4 seems, at first, a promising development. When confronted with the reality of the village’s weekly schedule, oriented as it is around market day ever five days rather than Sunday every seven, Nathan realizes he has “nothing to lose by announcing his own calendar” (p. 45). Other missionaries, presumably eager to contextualize the Christian faith for those with whom they minister, might embrace such opportunities to accommodate their practice to a native population. Nathan, however, seems able to do only so much, to go only so far. He moves the date of Easter, but he insists upon celebrating it in cultural forms relevant only to his Western, Southern Baptist experience. He enlists a cast of men for his pageant, but, in Rachel’s words, the performers have “to be so African about it” (p. 45), wearing their customary apparel and bringing with them the spears they use to kill wild animals. Yet how could they be other than African, about the pageant or about anything else? Likewise, Nathan hopes to conduct another “pageant,” of sorts: “a joyful procession down to the river” for a mass baptism; “The river would be jam-packed with purified souls” (p. 46). While the villagers do come to the river, they do so for the food (“the age-old method of a church supper,” p. 47). Notably, Rachel says that Mrs. Price has donated many chickens “for feeding the village, like a peace offering” (p. 49); perhaps she is taking one small step toward accepting Kilanga and its people as they are. Her husband, however, does not see (again, Kingsolver develops the theme of sight) how his wife has “won over the crowd” (p. 49)—he sits in silent frustration that the picnic “was not at all what he’d had in mind” (p. 49).
Ironically, the “festive” picnic (p. 49) may be something much greater than the Rev. Price had planned. Although Rachel, echoing her father’s unstated but clear opinion, states that the event was “nothing, in terms of redemption” (p. 49), Kingsolver, conversant as she clearly is in biblical imagery, is no doubt aware that the Kingdom of God is often depicted, in prophecies and parables, as a feast, a party, a celebration (e.g., Isa. 25:6-9; Matt. 22:1-10). Despite themselves, the Prices may have actually done God’s work in Kilanga that day—after all, Jesus taught his followers that whoever feeds “the least of these, [his] brothers” feeds him (see Matt. 25:31-46). What Rachel, in describing the counterfeit Easter Sunday, cannot see is indications of how God may be at work. She relates the great, vibrant diversity of the Kilangans’ dress—a colorful, mismatched mishmash of hues and styles; Kingsolver deftly evokes a bright, vital image in readers’ minds: “it appears that every man here was fixing to go to a different party, and then suddenly they all got plunked here together” (p. 44)—but all she can do is criticize the villagers for their purportedly poor fashion sense. “So that is how Easter Sunday looked in our church,” she says (p. 44)—missing entirely the fact that the biblical image of a large, bustling, diverse throng of people in the kingdom of heaven is being realized before her very eyes (see, e.g., Rev. 7:9). (Rachel even calls the picnic “one long, drawn-out eternity of a Congolese afternoon,” p. 48, oblivious to the possibility that eternity is, perhaps, breaking into time, that the picnic might actually be a sacramental occasion, even though the sacrament of baptism is not celebrated.) Rachel speaks of the rich, diverse menu of foods prepared in the village—even if it does include such exotic dishes as monkey!—and can only call it “our daily bread” in sarcasm (p. 46), when that is, of course, exactly what it is: the daily bread for which Jesus instructs his followers to pray (Matt. 6:11). The first great Christian missionary, Paul, wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Nathan Price and Rachel do not seem to share that attitude. In their insistence upon clinging to irrelevant cultural forms, in their failure to recognize how God might be at work around them (and, perhaps, even despite through them), they are already failing in the work they have come to Africa to do.
Ruth May
Summary: Ruth is fascinated by the unashamed, matter-of-fact way in which the people of Kilanga view their bodies, even when their bodies have been damaged—as, for example, has Mama Mwanza, one of the Prices’ neighbors. Some time before, Mama Mwanza’s roof caught fire and fell on her, burning away her legs. She must now “walk” using only her hands and arms; yet no one in the village makes much of that fact. Although the Rev. Price believes the villagers’ physical brokenness is indicative of spiritual brokenness, Orleanna suggests otherwise. She points out that the villagers lead a hard life and must work with their bodies, rather than with tools. Perhaps, she suggests, the Kilangans view their bodies simply as Westerners view work clothes. Her husband rebukes her for her idea: “Orleanna, the human body is a sight more precious than a pair of khaki trousers… I’d expect you to comprehend the difference… You of all people.” 
Analysis: This chapter revists and explores further the different attitude toward the body clearly evident in Kilanga. Ruth is amazed that a little girl can “just [run] around a-wearing” a ripped bodice “so one of her nipples shows… like she never noticed and neither did anybody” (p. 50). This matter-of-factness reminds readers of the bare-chested women who greeted the Prices at the church dinner upon their arrival in the village; it reinforces the idea that, for the Kilangans, the human body is natural and innocent. Ruth is also struck by the way in which the villagers “don’t care one bit about [Mama Mwanza] not having any legs to speak of… nobody stares at Mama Mwanza one way or another” (p. 52). Mama Mwanza must continue to care for herself, her husband, and her many children; in other words, life goes on for the villagers, physical hardship notwithstanding. 
The only people who attract attention because of physical attributes, Ruth notices, are the Prices, because they are white. Orleanna says the villager view them as “freaks of nature” (p. 52), which is perhaps an uncharitable interpretation of the Kilangans’ attitude; nevertheless, the Prices’ whiteness does mark them as different and “other” (fitting, given their continuing objectification, for the most part, of the Kilangans as “different” and “other”—athough this attitude may be beginning to soften; note Ruth’s report that Mama Mwazna “was nice and gave me a piece of orange to suck on,” although she hastily adds, “Mama doesn’t know,” p. 51—a notable juxtaposition of Ruth’s biological mother and an African maternal figure). The Prices are experiencing a reversal in social status; as Ruth says about Rachel, for instance, her sister “was Miss Priss and now she is a freak of nature” (p. 52). Kingsolver has already shown interest in the biblical metaphor of the kingdom of God, in which status roles are radically reversed; while the present chapter does not explicitly invoke the language of the kingdom, as other chapters have, it still develops that theme. Again, we see how the Prices may be becoming signs of the coming kingdom that Nathan preaches in spite of themselves! The only Price who does not attract undue attention, Ruth notes, is Adah: “Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out” (p. 53). The Kilangans, in other words, can identify with Adah, because Adah is not physically whole—a status that is the norm in the village. Brokenness of body and soul may be the universal norm, in fact; however, where Nathan condemns it (“Broken in body and soul, and don’t even see how they could be healed,” p. 53), the Kilangans simply accept it as a part of life—which is, perhaps, its own form of healing.
Orleanna seems to intuit this reality as she suggests that the villagers simply “take a different view of their bodies” (p. 53)—sounding again the theme of sight that Kingsolver is developing. Nathan views the human body as a “temple” (an allusion to the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” ); while this is orthodox theology that supposedly sanctifies the human body, Nathan’s attitude toward the body, at least when it is broken, does not seem to value it or regard it as holy. Orleanna, on the other hand, more nearly approaches a theology of the body that regards it as holy, “sanctified” through the Kilangans’ hard work and full engagement with life: “Well, here in Africa that temple has to do a hateful lot of work in a day… Even something precious can get shabby in the course of things. Considering what they’re up against here, that might not be a such a bad attitude for them to take” (pp. 53-54). Nathan’s view of the body remains distant and removed from real life; Orleanna’s does not. Nathan rebukes her for her speaking against him even in this mild way, adding that she “of all people” should know better. Readers do not know, at this point, to what Nathan is referring.


Quotes: Search by Author