The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 3:part 1
Book Three: The Judges
Orleanna Price, Sanderling Island, Georgia
Summary: On Sanderling Island, Orleanna seeks to justify her behavior in Africa to her still-unidentified audience, pleading that she was an “inferior force” against Nathan and his belief in his divinely appointed mission. She recounts her childhood and her courtship with Nathan, who was a handsome, young, itinerant revival preacher. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Nathan was drafted into the military. His company, however, became victims of the Bataan Death March; Nathan was the sole survivor. He returned to America scarred, with one eye worse than the other, and a completely changed man, suffering from survivor’s guilt and an all-consuming religious fervor. He is a distant husband and a harsh father, but Orleanna stays with him because she says that she, like the parrot Methuselah, had no wings with which to fly.
Analysis: The third book of Kingsolver’s novel takes as its epigraph a warning from Judges 2:2-3 in which the God of Israel warns the Israelites against allying with the “pagan” inhabitants of the Promised Land. Given what we have seen of Westerners and Kilangans in the novel to this point, however, readers may well wonder who are the “pagans” and who are the faithful!
The identity of Orleanna’s audience remains mysterious, although she seems to adopt a harsher tone with that audience here than previously, calling it again “little beast” and following with the admonition, “[F]irst listen, I am your mother” (p. 191). Orleanna’s tone throughout this chapter remains defensive. She makes it clear that she is aware of Nathan’s failings, but protests that resisting or leaving was simply not a viable possibility: “Oh, a wife may revile such a man with every silent curse she knows. But she can’t throw stones… It’s no use. There are no weapons for this fight. There are countless laws of man and of nature, and none of these is on your side” (p. 191). This chapter therefore has the air of a formal defense, as in a court setting, with Orleanna’s still unknown audience presiding (“Judge me as you will…,” p. 191).
One of the relentless forces arrayed against Orleanna was the Second World War; specifically, the fact that Nathan was the only member of his company spared the horror of the Bataan Death March. The Bataan Death March was a “forced march of 70,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war… captured by the Japanese in the Philippines. From the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula, the starving and ill-treated prisoners were force-marched 63 miles (101 km) to a prison camp. Only 54,000 prisoners lived to reach the camp; up to 10,000 died on the way and others escaped in the jungle” (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia). Nathan was not among the prisoners because he was felled by a shell fragment in the jungle fighting that preceded the march. This accident of fate becomes the source of the overwhelming survivor’s guilt that will forever, it seems, dog Nathan: his angry response to Orleanna’s joking about her first pregnancy—also the occasion of the first time he hits her—clearly shows how he his haunted by the fact of his comrades’ deaths: “Not a one of those men will ever see a son born to carry on his name. And you dare to gloat before Christ himself about your undeserved blessing” (p. 198). (Incidentally, Orleanna’s recollections of her children’s birth is the first time the novel has directly addressed the irony of the fact that the Prices lived in a town called Bethlehem, “man and swollen wife and no more room at the inn,” p. 198. Orleanna’s attempt at levity only heightens the disconnect between the Rev. Price and the Savior he claims to represent.) While some readers might be able to feel a certain measure of sympathy with what Nathan has experienced, the fact remains that his exposure to conflict, however traumatic, was brief; he is traumatized more by thinking about the horrors his fellow soldiers faced rather than any he faced himself. This fact does not lessen his mental trauma (Kingsolver employs a particularly striking metaphor to describe the effect: Nathan’s heart is “permanently curl[ed] like a piece of hard shoe leather,” p. 196), but neither does it also justify his harsh treatment of his wife and daughters.
Surely not coincidentally, Kingsolver in this chapter associates Orleanna with the novel’s continuing theme of correct perception and clear sight: we learn that Orleanna is the daughter of an eye doctor, a man who “failed to see why anyone would need more bluster and testimony about God’s Plan than what he found… within the fine-veined world of an eyeball” (p. 193). Orleanna sees some things clearly—namely, the guilt that drives her husband to be the “tyrant” he is (p. 198—the choice of word means that again her earlier question haunts readers, “Is this how a father rules?”)—and other things not clearly (for instance, she failed to recognize Nathan’s courtship as it was occurring and failed to see envision with him for what it would be—“From where I stood, it looked like a world of flattering attention,” p. 195; and, once more, we recall her admission that she failed to see how history in the Congo was “preparing to roll over us like a river,” p. 98).
At the conclusion of her chapter, Orleanna again draws upon Methuselah for symbolic purposes. Like the caged bird who, upon release, was unable to live in freedom, Orleanna is arguing that her life with Nathan made her lose “her wings” (p. 201). Unlike Methuselah, however, Orleanna hints that she eventually learned to fly again, although she cautions her audience—both the unknown one and us, as readers—“Don’t ask me how I gained them back—the story is too unbearable” (p. 201). Nevertheless, readers have every right to expect that Kingsolver will, in time, reveal it. Only then will we be in a position to render judgment, as it were, on Orleanna Wharton Price.
“The Things We Didn’t Know”
Kilanga, September 1960
Summary: The Rev. Price and Leah return from Lumumba’s inauguration, having had to bribe Axelroot to fly them back to Kilanga. The Prices now live without their missionary stipend, disappointing some of the villagers who expect money from them but also providing opportunities for the Kilangans to provide for them, as Mama Mwanza does when she brings them fruit. Orleanna and Ruth continue to be withdrawn, spending much of their time in bed; Nelson believes they are just the first two family members to be experiencing a curse from the gods, just as the Christian God cursed Job. Leah insists that God tested rather than cursed Job, a distinction that does not impress Nelson.
Analysis: We see further evidence in this chapter that Leah’s perception of the realities of African life is growing. Noticing the lack of a welcome on her second arrival in the village, Leah thinks back to the welcome feast the family was offered the previous year: “How strange and paltry it seemed at the time, and now, looking back, what an abundance of good protein had been sacrificed in our honor… I silently pledged to the Lord that I would express true gratitude for such a feast, if ever one should happen again” (p. 205). She also sees the generous Mama Mwanza in a new light, marveling that the woman would share her oranges without expectation of anything in return when Mama Mwanza “is not even Christian!” (pp. 206-207). Readers sense that Leah’s growth, while still framed in the religious vocabulary she has inherited from her father, is continuing in a positive direction. This growth is also mirrored in Leah’s increasing adeptness in Kikongo, as Nelson teaches her various words and their meanings, including the names the villagers have given the Prices. Based on her newly maturing understanding of and empathy of the Kilangans, we can perhaps appreciate why they chose not to call her “nothing much,” the literal meaning of her (Christian) name in their native tongue (p. 208): Leah is and will be something, someone, of consequence—or, at least, she has the potential to be so, a potential the Kilangans recognize. The fig tree is, of course, a prominent image in the Bible, an allusive potential upon which Kingsolver no doubt wishes to draw. It often represents God’s chosen people and God’s expectation that they will “bear fruit”—that is, live according to God’s will (e.g., Jer. 24:5; Hos. 9:10). In one memorable incident in the Gospels, however, Jesus curses a fig tree on which he finds no fruit (Mark 11:12-14, 20-26 and parallels). Interpreters often view this event allegorically, as an enacted parable: Jesus is seen to be warning the people that, unless they produce the “fruit” of God’s works, they, too, shall be cursed and withered. Thus, in the context of Kingsolver’s book, the fig tree is indeed, as Leah notes, “a much nicer word” than “nothing much” (p. 208), but it may not be an ironclad guarantee of continued growth. The Kilangans continue to observe—and, perhaps, ultimately, to judge, given the title of Book Three?—the Price family. Leah, like “Tata Chobé” (Job), may soon face a test—or, as Nelson insists, a curse.