The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 3:part 3

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Ruth May
Summary: Family life continues to deteriorate in the Price household, as Orleanna and Rachel both protest Nathan’s stubborn refusal to remove the family from the Congo. Nathan responds with Scripture and with physical abuse. Nelson visits Ruth in her sick bed to give her a nkisi: an amulet-like object made from a chicken bone, with a hole into which Ruth is supposed to blow her spirit. Nelson tells her that this will prepare her “if anything happens to” her—including death. Ruth will be able to disappear from the place where she is in danger and reappear somewhere else, thanks to the magic of the nkisi. Ruth keeps the object hidden under her pillow.
Analysis: The Rev. Price justifies his continued stay in the Congo by quoting to his family Jesus’ words about the meek inheriting the earth (Matt. 5.5). He shows by his actions, however, that although he views himself as “meek” in terms of submitting to God’s (ostensible) will, he is actually a bully. (“Is this how a father rules?” Orleanna’s earlier question continues to haunt the narrative.) Ruth hears her father slap Rachel to the ground, all in God’s name: “God despises a coward who runs while others stand and suffer” (p. 238). Nathan’s guilt at having escaped the Bataan death march has twisted his belief in God—or, perhaps, his belief in a God who punishes and rewards strictly on the basis of merit has only exacerbated his survivor’s guilt. Readers may understand, intellectually, how Nathan’s position relative to the other soldiers in his company in World War II would lead him to stubbornly stay in harm’s way, no matter the cost to himself or his family; they will likely not, however, decide that Nathan’s guilt justifies that course of (in)action. 
For her part, Orleanna interprets Jesus’ saying in a different way, a way that is probably far more in accord with Jesus’ intentions. Ruth sees her Mama fixing Nathan with a gaze “so cold there isn’t even any Mama home inside there”—note again the importance of eyes as a motif in the novel—as she tells him, with all the force of a biblical prophet, “Nathan Price, the meek shall inherit. You wait and see” (p. 238). What her husband takes as words of self-justification, Orleanna takes as words of promise for her and her daughters. They are “meek” not because they are actively submitting to Nathan’s will, but because, as Orleanna said in her chapter at Book Three’s beginning, Nathan’s will is too powerful, too overwhelming to resist: “His magnificent will. This is how conquest occurs: one plan is always larger than the other” (p. 199). The Prices’ marriage is, in some respects, a microcosm of the relationship between the West and Africa: the West’s “magnificent will” was simply overwhelming in its force in the days of the colonial powers. The West’s plan for Africa was “larger” than Africa’s plan for itself—indeed, before its violation at Western hands, Africa had little need to plan for itself; Kingsolver has shown us, time and again, how the Kilangans (whom readers can take as representative of Africa, for the novel’s purposes) are in harmony with nature and with each other, a harmony that Western intervention shattered. Now, however, the will of Africa—namely, in the person of Patrice Lumumba—is resisting. The will of Africa is asserting itself. (And, as we will see in the next chapter, this dynamic, too, finds reflection in the Price’s marriage; indeed, we have already heard Orleanna say that she did eventually gain back her “wings,” p. 201.) Orleanna interprets the saying about the meek inherting the earth as a promise that oppression—Western oppression of Africa, and Nathan’s oppression of his family (recall again that Orelanna has used the word “tyrant” to describe him (p. 198)—will not stand. Victims will be liberated and exalted. As Ruth realizes from her Bible readings, “I know the meek shall inherit and the last shall be first…,” p. 238. Such is the reversal in the biblical vision of the kingdom of God. And these new, kingdom values do raise troubling questions for those who benefit from the status quo of oppression and tyranny—as Ruth also realizes, for she goes on to reflect, “…but the Tribes of Ham were last. Now will they be first?” (p. 238).
Ruth still seems to be afraid of “the Tribes of Ham” as she talks about “all those black faces in the night a-looking at me” (p. 237). She even thinks, at first, that Nelson comes to her bedroom to harm her—“but instead he was my friend” (p. 238). Nelson gives her a new name (as Anatole bestowed new names on Leah and her sisters): Bandu, which means “the littlest one on the bottom. And it means the reason for everything” (p. 238). Ruth’s Kikongo name thus simultaneously acknowledges her unimportance in the eyes of her fathers—she is “on the bottom” of the heap of oppression that Nathan has forced on his family—as well as her importance in a new order, in what Christians would call the kingdom of God: the meek, the ones on the bottom, the oppressed, the marginalized are “the reason for everything,” the motivation for the inbreaking of a new order. And the name is not Nelson’s only gift to Ruth: the nkisi is a talisman that Nelson intends to preserve and protect Ruth. “He said now if anything happens to me, if I start fixing to die or something, hold on to this tight and bambula! Ruth May will disappear” (p. 239). Of course, as Ruth herself realizes, even this gift of protection and safety has ominous overtones. Readers cannot help but wonder, once more, what will become of Ruth. Kingsolver again proves effective at sustaining and intensifying her readers’ suspense as we wait for the death of a child that Orleanna has already told us is coming.
Summary: Although Ruth remains sick, Orleanna emerges from their shared sickbed, just in time to find Rachel trying and failing to cook eggs. She tells Rachel she will have to serve the ruined eggs for dinner (“penance for sixteen years of pulling up your nose at my cooking”), but that the next day, she will begin teaching Rachel how to cook. Leah is amazed to see how Orleanna, after her month of illness, now feels free to speak her mind, even to Nathan. Orleanna also announces her intention to find a way to get herself and her daughters out of the Congo (even if it means some unspecified but clearly unpleasant “payment” to Eeben Axelroot). Leah also confesses her first serious doubts of her father’s judgment. 
Analysis: In this brief but important chapter, Leah openly acknowledges what readers have now known for some time: “For the first time in my life I doubted [Nathan’s] judgment” (p. 243). Although she would still like to believe that his decision to keep the family in the Congo was the right one, she finds she does not. That realization leads her to a further one, also troubling: “If his decision to keep us here in the Congo wasn’t right, then what else might he be wrong about?” (p. 244). She confesses her doubts in the works theology that her father preaches, saying that she is “farther away” than she ever has been from “those same clean, simple laws” that he lets govern his life (p. 244). As she said in her previous chapter, the world is not as clear to her as it once was—“There’s a great holy war going on in my father’s mind… but I can’t always make out [Nathan’s] orders or even tell which side I am on exactly” (p. 244)—although this lack of clarity actually means Leah is seeing life more clearly, because she is growing aware of its complexity and difficulty. “For Father, the Kingdom of the Lord is an uncomplicated place” (p. 244)—but complications abound in the world of the present, and Leah is coming to appreciate that hard truth. “You can’t keep a new fire low,” she says, speaking of her sister’s disastrous attempt to cook; “it must grow or die” (p. 241)—but she may also be speaking of the flame of her new awareness, maturity, and independence from Nathan. Orleanna, too, is experiencing a new fire: as Leah says, her mother has “gotten up changed from her month in bed” (p. 243). Given the novel’s thematic emphasis on death and resurrection (as in Adah’s escape from the lion in Book Two), readers may even see Orleanna’s rising as a “resurrection” of sorts. She seems filled with new energy and conviction: “For one thing, she was now inclined to say whatever was on her mind right in front of God and everybody” (p. 243). She is also planning some way of getting her family out of Africa, perhaps at a distasteful cost: Eeben Axelroot, the pilot, tells Orleanna “that every man has his price. From the looks of Mama, she means to pay it” (p. 243). Readers will have to see whether these new fires are fed, or extinguish.
Summary: Brother Fowles (the missionary who preceded the Prices in Kilanga) returns to the village with his Congolese wife, Celine, and their children. They live in a houseboat and are back to Kilanga to visit Celine’s parents. The villagers are very excited to welcome Folwes back, and most of the Price family gradually warm up to him, as well. The Rev. Price is unimpressed by the Roman Catholic priest and naturalist (Fowles now spends most of his time cataloguing African fauna). He engages Fowles in a discussion (really, a thinly disguised contest) of various Scripture passages: for each text that Nathan interprets as a triumphalist and exclusivistic justification of his missionary work, Fowles either reinterprets in a more expansive, liberating fashion or counters with a text emphasizing God’s grace and the connectedness of humanity. Orleanna seems surprised to learn of other Christian missionaries in the region, with whom Fowles has connections.  Fowles and his family distribute gifts to the Kilangans before leaving; they also give Orleanna some antibiotics in the hopes that the medicine will help Ruth’s lingering sickness. 
Analysis: Readers have heard of Brother Fowles before this chapter, but here he makes his first direct entrance into the narrative. Kingsolver creates a colorful and engaging character. The Kilangans call him “Tata Bidibidi,” or “Mr. Bird”; to Rachel, Fowles seems more like “what Santa Claus would look like if he’d converted to Christian and gone without a good meal since last Christmas” (p. 245). Indeed, Fowles’ humor, generosity and wisdom do seem larger than life, and that effect is no doubt partly due to the fact that we see so little of those qualities in Nathan Price! The contrast between Fowles and Nathan could hardly be starker, as their “battle of the Bible verses” (p. 253) illustrates. Nathan knows all the traditional proof texts for evangelism and missionary activity, and is quick to emphasize, in his reading of Scripture (the “American Translation,” of course, likely referring to the American Standard Version, a 1901 revision of the King James Version), the exclusivistic meanings: for example, when Fowles quotes from Romans 12, “we, being many, are one body in Christ” to emphasize the connectedness he feels with all humanity, Nathan interjects, “In Christ!”—Rachel says, “as if to say, ‘Bingo!’” (p. 253). Nathan’s implication is that such connectedness is the exclusive possession of Christians, and Christians alone. Fowles is much more catholic in his approach—not Roman Catholic, although he is that (much to Nathan’s chagrin: “Father didn’t offer his hand. He was studying that big Catholic-looking cross around the neck,” p. 250), but “catholic” in the sense of “universal” and “commonly held.” Fowles seizes one of the apostle Paul’s richest metaphors—the olive tree, with branches broken off and grafted on (developed in Romans 11)—to explain his sense of solidarity with the Congolese people: “Brother Price”—and do note how Fowles addresses Nathan, a form of address that Nathan does not reciprocate; indeed, Nathan never addresses Fowles directly with any kind of name (save, ironically, “man,” but juxtaposed with the word “fool,” p. 252), and given the importance of naming in the novel, readers may fairly see this as a deliberate slight—“don’t you sometimes think about this, as you share the food of your Congolese brethren and gladden your heart with their songs? Do you get the notion we are the branch that’s grafted on here, sharing in the richness of these African roots?” (p. 252). Nathan is quick to point out—and correctly, in the original context of the image—“[t]hat verse refers to the children of Israel” (p. 252). But Fowles has interpreted the image in a new way, a way that liberates “the Word” (of God; the Word as the nommo, the force that gives life) and connects it to Africa and her people—connecting himself to them in the process. As Fowles tells Leah, when she questions his, to her mind, cavalier approach to Scripture, “God’s word” has been “brought to you by a crew of romantic idealists in a harsh desert culture eons ago, followed by a chain of translation two thousand years long… Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself?” (p. 247). Fowles demonstrates his awareness that all human spiritual and religious impulses, no matter how universal, cannot help but be expressed in particular cultural forms. He tells Orleanna that the Kilangans “are very religious people” (p. 246), with uniquely African ways. Thus, during his tenure as the missionary in Kilanga, Fowles was able to discover, as Nathan never has, that much of the Christian Bible “make[s] good sense here, if you only change a few words… And a whole lot of chapters, sure, you just have to throw away” (p. 247). Nor does Fowles seem to do this willy-nilly, but under the organizing principle of shared humanity and love for each other—again, sentiments he is not willing to restrict to those within the bounds of the Christian faith. Rachel’s humorous appellation for Fowles, “Reverend Santa,” is really quite appropriate: as Santa distributes gifts to all children, so does Fowles extend love to all people. As Fowles tells Orleanna, “I’ve been here so long, I’ve come to love the people here and their ways of thinking” (p. 248). For this reason, Fowles’ ministry among the Kilangans bore fruit that Nathan’s has not (remember the demonstration garden that Nathan planted, mostly unsuccessfully, in Book One). He admits to Orleanna that, by Nathan’s metric, his own ministry was not “successful”: he could not, for example, get Tata Ndu to discontinue the practice of multiple wives, yet “[i]n my six years here I saw the practice of wife beating fall into great disfavor. Secret little altars to Tata Jesus appeared in most every kitchen, as a result” (pp. 257-58). So we learn that the length of Fowles’ ministry, six years—often a number symbolizing incompleteness and imperfection—actually signifies nothing of the sort; rather, by Fowles’ standards of acculturation and incarnational ministry in order to do good, it is Nathan’s ministry that is imperfect and incomplete. To his credit, though, Fowles himself does not render this judgment; it is left to the readers to be the judge. (And readers, incidentally, will not fail to notice the sad irony in the fact that Fowles saved Kilangan wives from abuse, while Nathan is still not above abusing his wife and daughters.)
Another important development in this chapter is Fowles’ revelation to Orleanna that he is in contact with and receives support from other Christian missionaries in the Congo. He seems genuinely surprised that she has not heard of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Service’s hospital (p. 254)—Orelanna’s response is, “But we’re Baptists,” and she “sounds hurt” (p. 255). Readers cannot help but think that Nathan has been deliberately choosing to go it alone in the Congo, perfectly in character as the stubborn man that we know him to be. As Orleanna inquires about the other Baptist mission, Rachel notes that her mother “was eyeing the [Fowles’] boat, the canned goods, and perhaps the whole of our future” (p. 255). She has not forgotten the vow she made to her daughters in the previous chapter to find a way for them out of Africa. 
Summary: Ruth again takes a turn for the worse, and her fever does not respond to the antibiotics. In late August, Tata Ndu begins frequent visits to the Price household, bringing gifts of food and hand-carved figures. Nelson eventually reveals the reasons for the village chief’s attention: he wants to marry Rachel. Paying the family a dowry of goats and ivory in order to make Rachel one of his wives would, Tata Ndu thinks, be a way of offering the family financial help that the Rev. Price might accept (as opposed to charity). 
Analysis: For all the halting progress that we have seen in relations between some of the Prices and the people of Kilanga, this chapter confirms that large divides still exist between them. Commenting on the rarity of a “special five-day Kilanga week” without Sundays (p. 260), Adah admits that she does not know whether the family’s “neighbors” notice it at all, wryly stating, “Such was our fellowship with our fellow man in Kilanga” (p. 261)—in other words, virtually non-existent. At the chapter’s end, Orleanna and Nelson cannot continue their conversation about Tata Ndu’s marital plans any more because they had, even after a spell of mutual laugther, “reached the limits of mutual understanding” (p. 264). But of course it is the chief’s idea of marriage itself that most dramatically illustrates the gap between the Prices and the Kilangans. Nathan initially misinterprets Tata Ndu’s attention to the family: “The Reverend cockadoodled about the house, did he. ‘Our Christian charity has come back to us sevenfold,’ he declared, taking liberty with mathematics” (p. 260)—meaning, perhaps, that Adah does not think the family has shown any charity, Christian or otherwise, toward the villagers; or possibly that she guesses what is eventually revelaed, that Tata Ndu’s visits and gifts have nothing to do with the Prices’ actions. Indeed, to Tata Ndu’s mind, the “courtship” and marriage would be charity: “he knows it is not the way of Tata Price to take help from the Congolese. So he can bargain man to man. He can help your family by paying Tata Price some ivory and five or six goats and maybe a little cash” for Rachel’s hand in marriage (pp. 262-263). In some ways, the chief’s plan is further evidence of what Leah noted in a previous chapter: those who are “not even Christian” (p. 207) can sometimes, if not often, be more charitable than those who are. Still, the cultural differences remain, and cannot be easily navigated.


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