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Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 1 Section 2 Parts 9 11 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 1, Section 2 (Parts 9–11) : Genesis (The Things We Carried, Kilanga, 1959) | Summary




As Rachel's 16th birthday approaches, Orleanna plans to bake a cake using Betty Crocker cake mix brought from America. Leah describes Orleanna's distress when she realizes the mix is ruined.

Later, Nathan hears Methuselah the parrot say, "Damn." Nathan scolds his daughters, convinced they swore in the parrot's presence. He assigns them all The Verse, his preferred punishment. The parrot learned the word from Orleanna, who swore about the ruined cake mix, but none of the girls tell Nathan it was their mother's fault.


Nathan tries to encourage church attendance by feeding people, ignoring Orleanna's previous attempt to do the same thing. As Adah says, "A wife is beneath notice." Nathan uses dynamite to fish, producing far more fish than anyone can eat. Adah wonders where he obtained the dynamite, and concludes it was from Eeben Axelroot, the airplane pilot who is their only way in or out of Kilanga.

Nathan has also enlisted the help of Anatole, the schoolteacher, to translate his sermons. Adah wonders how Anatole can translate some of the more obscure biblical words. Watching him closely, she concludes he could tell any story he liked, with Nathan none the wiser. This amuses Adah.

Mama Tataba warns the family to make Nathan stop talking about baptism, but Nathan ignores her, believing she is dumb because she is female. During his lectures, Leah tries to please him, Adah says nothing, and Rachel fakes interest. Only Orleanna tries to engage with him, but he finds fault with everything she says.


Nathan and Leah's garden has grown, but it does not produce fruit. Nathan studies the plants carefully. He is there when Mama Tataba announces she is quitting. After she leaves, Leah seeks out her father. He has figured out the problem: African pollinators cannot, or will not, pollinate American plants. He seems bewildered: "As if a small, befuddled stranger were peering through the imposing mask of my father's features." His reaction makes Leah uneasy.

Mama Tataba has also told Nathan why the villagers are so opposed to baptism. The river is full of crocodiles, and a little girl was eaten. Nathan shows no understanding or humility upon learning this. He blames people for not telling him earlier. As he fumes, Methuselah swears again. Nathan violently throws the bird outside. Leah wonders if he killed him, but Methuselah flies into a nearby tree.


Life in Africa is not easy, but Nathan makes it even more difficult. As an American and a representative of God, he assumes he will be successful, but his two gestures of generosity fail. His bounty of fish is merely wasteful, as the fish rot before they can all be eaten, and his baptisms are supposed to take place in a crocodile-infested river. These failures happen because Nathan refuses to ask questions. He assumes the villagers are ignorant, godless savages. He never asked for help with his garden, but his garden is not fruitful. Africa is not teaching Nathan humility.

Nathan assumes he is wiser than the Congolese, but Kingsolver shows the reader the truth. Mama Tataba and Anatole may not know the Bible as well as Nathan, but they are not intimated by him. Nathan assumes they are his docile, obedient helpers, but Kingsolver proves otherwise. Adah observes and approves of the Congolese efforts to ignore, or subvert, Nathan's plans.

Methuselah the parrot functions here as a symbol. In the Bible, Methuselah was the longest-living person. He lived to be 969 years old. The parrot will not live as long, but he offers continuity from the previous missionary, the much-maligned Brother Fowles. Methuselah is an African gray parrot who lives in a cage—a native of this place forced to live in the way white people think he should, just as Nathan thinks the village women should change their way and cover their breasts. Methuselah learns words he hears people say, and hearing him say, "Damn," stings Nathan's conscience. Nathan's rage—and the reactions from his wife and daughters—suggests Nathan is habitually abusive.

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