The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 3:part 2

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Summary: As Nelson teaches Adah the Kikongo language (largely by way of gestures and notes written back and forth on paper), he reveals that the birth of twins is considered a great misfortune in Kilonga. Any mother who gives birth to twins must leave them to die in the forest. He is shocked to learn that Adah and Leah are twins. He tells Adah that half of her father’s congregation is related to dead twins. The church attracts the socially undesirable. 
Analysis: Several of Kingsolver’s dominant themes surface again in this chapter. One is the power of language and words—“Nommo,” as the word is called in Kikongo: “Nommo is the force that makes things live as what they are… The rabbit has the life it has—not a rat life or mongoose life—because it is named rabbit… A child is not alive, claims Nelson, until it is named” (p. 209). Readers will be reminded of the significance of the Price daughters’ names (established and/or alluded to in Book One), as well as to the Kilangans’ renaming of the girls in the immediately previous chapter (p. 208). As in biblical society of old, traditional Congolese society maintains a belief in the near-magical efficacy of words, of speech, of language. The nommo can not only give life; it can also take it away. “It is a dangerous thing, I now understand, to make mistakes with nommo in the Congo. If you assign the wrong names to things, you could… [m]ake a machete rise up and dance” (p. 213). She may be alluding either to violence against Westerners such as her family, or to a possibility that the violence soon to strike the Congo that might arise, in part (and unintentionally), from passions excited by the soaring rhetoric of Prime Minister Lumumba’s inaugural address. 
Adah correctly identifies this belief as part of the reason her father’s mission is not meeting with the success he wants it to: “It is a special kind of person who will draw together a congregation, stand up before them with a proud, clear voice, and say words wrong, week after week” (p. 213; note that one of the words the Rev. Price has apparently most often mispronounced is batiza, or “baptism”—“Our Father’s fixed passion,” p. 214—which can also mean “to terrify” in Kikongo). On the other hand, readers may also be put in mind of “the Word” in the prologue to John’s Gospel in the New Testament. The evangelist identifies Jesus as “the Word of God”; and so, appropriately, Adah bears some indirect testimony in this chapter that even her father’s flawed attempts to speak the Word is efficacious, albeit not in ways he wants. Nathan “cannot imagine that he is still merely serving the purpose of cleaning up the streets… [r]emoving troublesome elements from the main ceremonial life of Kilanga” (pp. 212-213). As Adah puts it, “We seem to be the Church for the Lost of Cause” (p. 212), including all the mothers and relatives of dead twins. Arguably, as Adah herself recognizes (again, she sees clearly what others do not) that such a church is “not so far afield from what Jesus himself was operating” (p. 212). As Jesus states in the New Testament, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Nathan is not interested in such work; as we now know from Orleanna’s third chapter, he wants to prove his worth, and building a congregation of outcasts probably will not seem like success to him. It is, however, a sign of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom—the work Nathan is supposedly committed to serving. As Adah sums up the situation, “By pure mistake, [Nathan’s] implementation is sometimes more pure than his intentions” (p. 213).
Readers will, of course, want to pay attention to further development of the idea that twins, or báza, are cursed. We have already heard, in Book One, Adah speak of her relationship to her twin sister Leah in language that suggests the burden of a cursed existence, a curse around which she has nonetheless found a way of working and living. When misfortune strikes the Price family, as has now been foreshadowed several times, will it strike one of the twins—and will the Kilangans seize upon it as evidence of the failure of “Tata Jesus” to protect them?
Ruth May
Summary: Ruth describes how she and Orleanna spend much time in bed, sad. She confesses that she hoped her father would not return from the inauguration. She relates a dream she had in which she climbed to the top of a tree and could look down upon the whole village, including her mother, “like Jesus does.”
Analysis: The dream Ruth shares in this brief chapter may be another bit of foreshadowing (or perhaps misdirection) from Kingsolver, leading us to wonder whether Ruth will be the child who dies. After all, how else might she see the world from above, “like Jesus does” (p. 218)? At any rate, it emphasizes the sadness that has overtaken her and her mother’s lives. 
Summary: The Rev. Price is, apparently, not troubled by the sadness—and sickness—that have overcome Orleanna and Ruth. He is absent for long stretches of time, seeking to convert the people of the Congo, leaving Rachel, Leah and Adah to make plans for the continuing operation of the Price household (and physically striking them when they fail to have dinner ready for him).  
Analysis: “Oh, that Bible,” Adah wryly laments, “where every ass with a jawbone gets his day!” (p. 217). She is alluding to the biblical character Samson, who was one of the “judges”—not the judges familiar to modern readers from modern courtrooms, but charismatic leaders whom the book of Judges says God raised up to lead the tribes of ancient Israel through times of hostility and to dispense justice for the people—famous for his exploits of physical strength: “Samson said, ‘With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey's jawbone I have killed a thousand men’” (Judges 16:15). Adah’s comment indicates not only that she does not view Samson in a positive light (as, indeed, the biblical narrator does not seem to, for much of Samson’s tale, Judges 13-16: he is a character who, according to many interpretations, willfully ignores the claim God placed on him before his birth and breaks, one by the one, the vows of special service to God made on his behalf, including his famous revelation to Delilah of how to sap his strength by cutting his hair), but also that she does not view her father favorably—no surprise to readers by this point in the novel, but further confirmation of the fact. Her father is the ass, not the judge! The allusion is noteworthy because, of course, Kingsolver titles Book Three “The Judges,” and Adah is here judging Nathan. Further, we see Adah, Leah and Rachel all acting, in a sense, as the biblical judges: rising to the challenge of a difficult situation in order to provide what stability and security they can to their “family unit” (p. 218). Adah quotes American patriot Thomas Paine’s famous saying “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately” (p. 221), a further emphasis of the sisters’ “judging” role; as is their “silent disapproval” (p. 221) of the unkempt and listless Orleanna. Readers will likely not be quick to criticize her for failing to provide the care and direction that her daughters have come to expect from her: we know, from Orleanna’s three chapters, that her marriage to Nathan has been trying, and that Orleanna “felt lucky to get [her] shoes on the right feet” each day (p. 200). Even Adah is not completely without sympathy for her mother: “Our Father irritably countered [to Orleanna] that the Lord operates in mysterious ways. As if she did not know” (p. 218); “We had not understood what our mother had gone through to get square meals on the table for the past year” (p. 218); “Our mother used to have mystery under her skin, and we paid not the slightest attention” (p. 220). All the same, we see, as Orleanna does, that positions and responsibilities have shifted within the Price household. The girls are being forced by events to grow up more quickly than they should have to, and to shoulder responsibilities and burdens they should not have to bear. As Adah observes, “Our childhood had passed over into history overnight” (p. 218). (On the other hand, readers will also recall Leah’s earlier recognition, “Childhood was nothing guaranteed…. [but rather] more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress,” pp. 114-15. In that sense, then, who is to say that the girls, in having to cope with life’s harsher realities sooner than they would have had to back in America, are actually losing anything? Perhaps the experience will prove beneficial—although, again the continued foreshadowing of death may makes such a conclusion seem premature and naively optimistic. As Adah writes, “The point of our exercise was to convince ourselves that the wolf was not actually at the back door but perhaps merely salivating at the edge of our yard,” p. 220).
Summary: In an attempt to revive Ruth’s spirits, Leah takes her outside to play with her. Anatole comes with a rabbit to give the Prices for the dinner and also with news that Moise Tshombe, chief of the Lunda tribe, has declared his intentions to secede from the newly independent Congo, despite Prime Minister Lumumba’s objections. Tshombe is motivated in no small part by the deals he can make with Belgians and Amercians for the Congo’s diamonds. Lumumba has asked the United Nations to send peacekeeping forces, and says that, if the U.N. will not come, he will appeal to Khrushchev for help. Anatole thinks Lumumba is bluffing, because he wants America as an ally. 
Analysis: Moise Tshombe was one of the candidates in the Congo’s first election; following his loss to Lumumba, he did declare the province of Katanga independent, and it would remain in secession until 1963, when United Nations intervention forced Tshombe into exile. In the current chapter, this political background serves as the basis for an extended discussion between Leah and Anataole about the nature of freedom and self-determination. When Leah is confronted with knowledge of the Congo’s illicit diamond trade—“Why would the businessmen take Congo’s diamonds away? And what are Americans doing down there anyhow? I thought the Congo belonged to Belgium. I mean before” (p. 230)—Anatole teaches her, gently but firmly, to see the situation in a different way: “Open your eyes” (reinforcing the symbolic importance of eyes and vision in the novel, p. 230). When Leah does so, she sees love and affection between Mama Mwanza and her sons that she wishes her own family experienced; she also sees a common humanity with her neighbors: “people young and old are more or less the same everywhere” (p. 231). She even goes so far as to imagine herself as a child of African parents (p. 225). Once Leah can see the people of Kilanga as people, Anatole can tell her, “Do you see that…? That is Congo. Not minerals and glittering rocks with no hearts, these things that are traded behind our backs. The Congo is us” (p. 231). Anatole is insisting upon the ideal of the unconquerable Africa we have seen since Orleanna related her sighting of the opaki in her first chapter. He is reaffirming the importance of freedom, even as his nation struggles with its practical implications. Leah is learning to see the complexity of the Congo’s new situation even as Anatole sees it. For example, she reflects upon her reaction to her father’s belief, which he told her at Lumumba’s inauguration, that America would correct the inequities between rich and poor in the independent Congo: “Maybe I was foolish to believe him”—a startling admission, given Leah’s desperation for Nathan’s approval. “There were shanties just as poor in Georgia, on the edge of Atlanta, where black and white divided, and that was smack in the middle of America” (p. 232). She is coming to understand that the world is not always unambiguous: “I couldn’t say who was wrong or right” (p. 232). She is learning to reject the illusion, as are the people in the Congo’s large cities, that “after Independence life would immediately become fair” (p. 232). She also experiences cognitive dissonance between what she has been taught about the Communists and what some of the Congo’s people expect of them: when Anatole asks her what she knows of Communists, she says, “I know they do not fear the Lord, and they think everybody should have the same…” “The same kind of house, more or less,” Anatole finishes (p. 233). Leah is going through the process, an important developmental task of adolescence, of reevaluating the beliefs she has received about the world, measuring them against her own experience and opinions, as well as those of people she knows and respects. The chapter is thus continuing evidence of Leah’s slow but steady growth as a person. As she is now aware, “In the light of day, almost everything we did in Kilanga seemed childish” (p. 225). For her part, though, Leah is starting to grow up. Even her decision to tend to Ruth, as Leah notes, “at least seemed motherly and practical” (p. 225). 
This chapter also gives ample evidence that Leah is also maturing as a sexual being, as her attraction to Anatole is evident throughout. She blushes in embarrassment that he may have seen her feeding the ant lions; she pays attention to Anatole’s physical build; she says explicitly, “I hadn’t realized how much I liked him” (p. 227). Yet readers may also note that she might be viewing Anatole in a similar way to how she views her father: she seems almost too eager to please, too desperate for Anatole’s affection. (Also, note again the episode in which she imagines her parents as Africans, p. 225.) When Anatole reassures Leah, for instance, that she, personally, has not done anything wrong to the Congo, Leah tells readers, “My heart rejoiced at that, though I couldn’t say why” (p. 229). Readers may fairly expect that Leah will continue to sort out her feelings toward both of these men. She is developing a more objective view of Nathan: “Watching my father, I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room” (p. 229). On the other hand, her growing affection for Anatole is complicated and tainted by the prejudice Leah has learned growing up in the American South: she is “unsure” if she is violating some “vague” prohibition “about being true to your own race and kind” (p. 225). 
The theme of the importance of language, specifically naming, also resurfaces in this chapter. We learn that Anatole has “special names for each of [Leah’s] sisters and [Leah], not the hurtful ones other people use” (p. 225). Anatole, however, will not divulge the meaning of these names (including the name he uses for Leah, Béene-béene, a name whose meaning will be divulged before the book’s conclusion). Anatole understands the power of language and of names; they cannot be used casually or without consequence. Leah experiences this truth for herself at this chatpter’s end, as she reflects, “Anatole’s words had pushed things around inside of me” (p. 236). The Word, the nommo, has power to reshape and to change.


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