The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 1:part 5

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Summary: Nathan Price introduces a Western method of “fishing” to the Kilangans: detonating dynamite under water, sending stunned fish to the surface. He does so in an attempt to provide a bounty of food for the village, hoping it will lead to mass conversions and baptisms. What it leads to, instead, is a glut of fish that soon rot and go to waste (for the village has no ice with which to preserve the fish). During a Sunday worship service, then, Price preaches not on the story of the miraculous loves and fishes but on the story of Susanna. He relates how the prophet and seer Daniel rescued Susanna from a stoning by catching the men who accused her of adultery in a lie. Adah is unimpressed by the Scripture and by her father’s sermon; she occupies her time mentally composing what she calls “snmyhymns,” or “hymns that can be sung equally well forward or backward.” The Rev. Price includes in his sermon more appeals for the Kilangans to be baptized; on the family’s way home, Mama Tataba warns that the preacher must stop doing so. At the Sunday dinner table, Nathan relates an anecdote about twelve African boys who kept a disabled Mercedes truck running by weaving timing belt after timing belt for it out of elephant grass. He says the story is a lesson in the importance of adaptability. 
Analysis: The Rev. Price’s choice of text on which to base his Sunday sermon is an odd choice for a Baptist minister to make. The book of Susanna is an Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical) book, a Greek-language addition to the canonical, Hebrew and Aramiac book of Daniel, recognized as authoritative Scripture by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions but not by most Protestant tradtions, and certainly not by Southern Baptists. In her previous chapter, Adah told us that “one pet project of the Reverend’s” was “getting other Baptists to swallow” his “peculiarly beloved” Apocrypha (p. 59). The present chapter might offer us some insights into why Nathan believes that to be a worthy goal. According to biblical scholar Robert Doran, writing for the Harper’s Bible Commentary (ed. James L. Mays; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), the book of Susanna can be read in one of two major directions: following its concluding verses, as a statement that “the education of youth is to be carefully guarded—they will live reverently and a spirit of insight will be in them,” as is the case with Daniel (Doran, p. 865); or, following the “thrust of the story itself,” as “a critique of institutional authority and a distinction between institutional office and the spirit of insight” (Doran, p. 865). Scholar Toni Craven, in her insightful analysis for the Women’s Bible Commentary (eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), points out that “Susanna is a narrative about God’s raising up a champion of faith who triumphs over adversity”—but that champion is not the woman Susanna, but the man Daniel. “Ironically,” writs Craven, “according to the story’s present conclusion, Susanna receives no credit for her courageous loyalty to the law” (pp. 312-313). Susanna, in short, remains a silenced voice, even in the book that bears her name! Taking these scholars’ judgments into consideration, readers may conclude that the Rev. Price values the Apocrypah, not for any deep spiritual insight he can draw from them, but for the lessons that youth—especially young girls and women—must be saved and instructed by spiritually insightful males. Adah seems to understand “Our Father’s” interest in the Apocrypha as she notes that he “loves Daniel… Tata Daniel (he called him, to make him seem like a local boy) stepped in” “to the rescue” (p. 71). The Rev. Price apparently preaches and teaches Susanna as a text about the power of the male and the impotence of the female; this may inform the imagined conclusion that Adah has Tata Anatole, her father’s translator, giving in place of the text’s actual conclusion: “So they stoned the dame and married two more wives apiece and lived happily ever after” (p. 72). The story might as well end that way, in Adah’s view; after all, as she points out, its readers “are not supposed to wonder what kind of husband was this Joakim, who would kill his own lovely wife rather than listen to her side of the story” (p. 71). Adah’s “eyes” allow her to “see” meanings in and implications of the text that others do not (a faculty of vision sharpened, no doubt, by her reading of books other than the Bible, as she told us in her previous chapter; after all, a reading of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will do wonders in educating its audience in the duplicitous, self-deceiving character of the human heart, a duplicity and self-deception that Adah now finds in the book of Susanna). Is it any wonder that Adah yawns, that she writes “synyhymns” (further evidence of her love of and facility with palindromes), rather than listen to a text in which, generally speaking, women are silenced; and that, in particular, bears uncomfortable parallels to her own family life? What kind of husband, Adah no doubt wonders, is Nathan Price, who—as we have now seen, in the incident of the disagreement about the Kilangans’ view of the body—refuses to listen to his wife’s side of a story? She implicitly connects the silencing of Susanna by Joakim to the chicken picnic her mother prepared for the village earlier in the novel: Nathan is intent on forcing a “miraculous” feeding of Kilanga, “[n]ot having noticed, for a wife is beneath notice, that this is exactly what our mother did when she killed all the chickens,” p. 70). Even though Adah does not invoke Lot’s wife at this point, the situation of the “poor wife” Susanna and the “poor wife” who was Lot’s resonate. They are both women trapped and silenced (as Adah is trapped in her body and silenced—partly by her own choice, yes, but also partly by the low expectations of the doctors, parents, and siblings around her) in a world of men purportedly proclaimed holy by their God. “Sight Thy blessed father holy,” says Adah, inverting her father’s words in worship, transforming them from supplication into a command (p. 69). But Adah—with her “Adah’s eyes”—cannot “sight,” or see, her father as holy. Why not? Because she reads books that convey true information about the human heart.
The anecdote Nathan relates at Sunday dinner is really one more way in which he “exercises dominion”—more accurately, domination—over his family. Adah says Nathan’s “Socratic moods”—a reference to the classical technique of education by asking questions—are not dangerous, “for he rarely struck us at the table” (p. 71)—her acknowledgement that, while rare, Nathan does use physical force against his family (even as he uses it against the fish of the Kwilu river—a “high-horse show of force,” p. 69). Nathan also uses prayer as a bludgeon over his family: “He always ended these interrogations with an exasperated, loud private conversation with God concerning our hopelessness” (p. 74). More to the point, Nathan’s sense of the family’s hopelessness is rooted in misogyny: “it was designed to show us all up as dull-witted, bovine females” (p. 73). Ironically, then, readers will note that this particular interrogation reveals Nathan as the dull-witted one: although he claims the story of the boys who kept the truck running with timing belts of elephant grass is a parable of adaptability, Nathan has proven to be anything but adaptable (his rearrangement of the demonstration garden soil into burial mounds notwithstanding, which he only did under the duress of a deluge!). As Mama Tataba complains, Nathan is still preaching the importance of baptism: “Reverant Price he better be give that up!” (p. 73). But Nathan is a stubborn man, not very adaptable to African ways at all: “Our Father could not seem to accept what seemed clear enough even to a child: when he showered the idea of baptism—batiza—on people here, it shrunk them away like water on a witch” (p. 73). Readers will soon learn why.
Summary: The Rev. Price’s first sermon in August is another sermon dwelling at great length on the touchy subject of baptism, and it proves the last straw for Mama Tataba: she leaves the employment of the Price household after giving Nathan an angry talking-to. Nathan tells Leah that Mama Tataba did, however, finally tell him why the villagers resist baptism: the previous year, a little village girl was eaten in the river by a crocodile. Having been disturbed and dispirited by his lack of progress, both in his demonstration garden and in his missionary work, Nathan, angry that no one shared this information with him, seems to regain his resolve. He sets Methuselah the parrot free, cursing the birds with the words it learned from Brother Fowles: “Piss off!”
Analysis: Leah narrates the concluding chapter of Book 1, and as she does she reveals more evidence of a potentially troubling identification and intimacy with her father. “My father had been going to the garden alone,” she says. Her language may be an allusion to an old gospel hymn (which would have bee familiar to most Southern Baptists, indeed most Protestants, in the 1950s and 1960s) entitled “In the Garden,” written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912; the first stanza begins, “I go to the garden alone, when the dew is still on the roses…” and, as it continues, it describes a Christian’s perception of his intimate relationship with Jesus; the refrain sings, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” This image from popular North American Christian piety of the 20th century, then, may inform some of the scenes of Leah and Nathan in the garden. At any rate, the text itself tells us, “I sometimes went out to sit with him, even though Mother held it against me, saying he needed his solitude” (p. 77). Is this the only reason, readers may wonder, that Orleanna objects? Leah’s language about her interactions with her father continue to bear, intentionally or not, inappropriate erotic freight: e.g., “I was thrilled by the mere fact of his speaking to me in this gentle, somewhat personal way” (p. 77).
Also in this chapter, Nathan learns why the villagers have been avoiding baptism so steadfastly: they remember the girl who was killed by a crocodile in the river. As Leah recognizes when she hears the parrot calling mbote, the word that can mean hello or goodbye (p. 80), it is a pivotal moment, a point for decision. At first, Nathan appears as though he will face the truth of the family’s situation steadfastly. He has learned that there are no bees in Africa to pollinate Western plants; the bees in Africa exist for African plants. He seems to be accepting that Africa is a different world, and must be engaged and respected as such—the undomesticated, untameable Africa represented by the opaki of Orelanna’s prologue. Nathan tells Leah, in a clear allusion to what Orleanna and the girls brought with them on the flight to Africa, “you can’t bring the bees. You might as well bring the whole world over here with you, and there’s not room for it” (p. 80). Instead, Nathan retreats from this revelation. The news about the village girl’s death ultimately seems only to harden his resolve to do his work his way, and not in the ways of Africa. In casting out Methuselah, Nathan is casting out, symbolically, Brother Fowles and his (presumed) way of adapting himself to the people of Africa. Nathan is, in effect, telling the entire continent, “Piss off!” (p. 81). He is angry that no one told him the truth about the river, for six months; and that anger now seems to be driving him, rather than the love that his Christ commands in the Bible. Leah says, “The old fire was seeping back into this strange, wistful husk of my father. I felt gratified” (p. 81). Faith in works theology, in a tit-for-tat Father God, has—for the time being—been restored. Even so, Leah has some intimation that the unconquerable Africa will endure and prevail: “the highest boughs of the jungle… will surely take back everything once we are gone” (p. 82). And so Book 1 of Kingsolver’s novel ends much as it began (a palindromic progression that would no doubt please Adah), with the affirmation that, all Western efforts to the contrary, Africa is an opaki, a unicorn, that will look one in the eye, shifting under one’s hands, “refusing to be party to failed relations” (p. 10).


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