Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 1 Section 2 Parts 5 8 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 1, Section 2 (Parts 5–8) : Genesis (The Things We Carried, Kilanga, 1959) | Summary

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Summary

Leah

Leah introduces Mama Tataba, the Price family's housekeeper, and Methuselah, the parrot. Mama Tataba is a small African woman with one blind eye. She speaks English because she worked for the previous missionary, Brother Fowles. Brother Fowles went "plumb crazy, consorting with the inhabitants of the land," leaving Mama Tataba and Methuselah behind. Mama Tataba offers advice to Nathan and Leah about their new project: an American garden in African soil.

Leah worries about her father's huge new task, "bringing the Word to a place like this." She admires his desire to learn, and his service in the military "where he was a wounded hero in the Second World War." Leah helps Nathan clear the ground and plant seeds. Mama Tataba warns them to avoid a particular tree called poisonwood, and also to "make hills" to plant in. Nathan pointedly dismisses both, and the next morning he wakes up afflicted with a serious rash. The poisonwood plant is related to poison ivy, sumac, and other plants that irritate human skin, although insects and other creatures benefit from them. Mama Tataba reshapes the Price garden into mounds, like graves, but Nathan disapproves, and Leah helps him put the garden back the way he wanted it to be.

Rachel

To attract more people to church, Nathan declares Easter Sunday, even though it's summer. Rachel grieves for the fancy clothes she would have had for an American Easter, and criticizes the villagers' fashion choices. Nathan has a larger concern: baptism. He wants to baptize everyone in the river, but the villagers refuse. They won't even attend church, although they are happy to attend a church picnic, and eat Orleanna's fried chicken. Nathan ignores Orleanna's contribution.

Ruth May

Ruth May says the village children are hungry but "look fat." No one explains malnutrition to her, so she assumes it is another punishment for "the Tribes of Ham." Ruth May matter-of-factly describes the deformities and suffering experienced by many in the village. The Prices' neighbor, Mama Mwanza, for example, was burned in a fire and has lost the use of her legs. Now she uses her arms to move around, and still cares for her husband and children.

Nathan describes the villagers as "living in darkness. Broken in body and soul." Orleanna disagrees. She compares a worn-out body in Africa to a worn-out pair of pants in America. It would be difficult to avoid getting sick or hurt in Africa, she suggests. Nathan speaks sharply to his wife because she disagreed with him. Ruth May notes if she spoke in such a way to Nathan, she would get whipped.

Adah

Adah's active brain and heretical attitude—at least by her father's standards—lead her to explore a wide variety of reading materials. She secretly reads Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and poems by Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. Adah can also read backwards and frequently flips words around, as she does in the second paragraph of this chapter: "Star Pupil: Lipup Rats." Kingsolver uses this flipped language to call attention to things that matter to Adah and to show her unique vision, which is part of her unique shape.

Adah says she and Leah were both identified as gifted, although many people assumed Adah was a "Mongoloid" (derisive term referring to people affected with Down syndrome) because of her disabilities. Adah thinks her mother took the gifted identification seriously, but Nathan believes all women belong in the home. He doesn't care if his children are potentially brilliant and will not consider any additional education for them.

Adah describes Methuselah, the African gray parrot left behind by Brother Fowles. Methuselah shouts words he has learned, including many that make Nathan think Brother Fowles was no true Christian. Adah is amused because Methuselah cannot be punished with "The Verse," as the girls are. For punishment, Nathan often makes his daughters copy a 100-verse-long passage from the Bible, something they all dread.

When trapped inside by a severe rainstorm, Adah studies their house. By Kilanga standards the house is palatial, with cement floors and real glass windows. But in fact, it is sparsely furnished with only hand-me-downs from other missionaries, including "one amazing, beautiful thing:" a bone china platter painted with blue flowers. This platter becomes a symbol of special occasions in the Price household.

After the rain, Adah dryly observes one lesson Africa taught her father—his garden was destroyed because he didn't plant his seeds in "hills," as Mama Tataba suggested. Nathan concedes defeat and replants everything into "flood-proof embankments, exactly the length and width of burial mounds."

Analysis

Nathan is very closed-minded and confident that he is always right. But, as the garden shows, he is out of his element. His errors so far have been minor, but he is not learning from them. Ruth May is paying attention, and her comments about the villagers' bodies reflect her attentiveness, while Adah observes everything. Leah, Rachel, and Nathan for now remain frozen in their American points of view.

In Leah, Kingsolver explores the white savior complex. This refers to the trope of the admirable white person who rescues people of color from their difficulties. The white savior complex occurs in culture, politics, charitable giving, and more. Leah describes their garden as their "first African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence" and later imagines, "Someday perhaps I shall demonstrate to all of Africa how to grow crops!" Leah wants to help people, but how could a teenage girl possibly know more about planting crops in Africa than people who have lived there for generations?

Nathan's white savior complex is particularly severe because he also wants to introduce Africans to a religious savior: Jesus. For Christians, Easter is the holiest day of the year, celebrating Jesus Christ's resurrection. Easter is strictly scheduled on the Christian calendar, and it never occurs in July. Nathan uses the villagers' disinterest in traditional calendars to arrange Easter at his own discretion.

Baptism is one of the sacraments—or important religious acts—of the Christian faith. Baptism signifies entry into the faith: to Nathan a person must be baptized to be Christian. In a community lacking a resident minister for so long, many people would be in need of baptism, but the villagers resist the idea. To Nathan, this means they are rejecting either him or God. Neither is acceptable.

The china platter by contrast is an unexpectedly elegant thing to find in these surroundings. Bone china is a very beautiful high-quality china. It is translucent and has a slightly different color than other types of porcelain. Bone china is so named because bone ash is included in the pieces. Cow bones are usually used, although rumors sometimes hint that human bones may be used—a morbid thought, appropriate to Africa, where things throughout the book can be both beautiful and deadly.

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