The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 3, Section 1 : The Judges (Orleanna Price) | Summary



Orleanna argues defensively to the ghost, whom she calls "little beast." She insists she could not save her daughters from Nathan, listing all the things she did not have: "No money ... no influence, no friends ... I was an inferior force."

She thinks back to her life before Nathan, growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother had died, and her father, a doctor, let her roam free. Orleanna implies she was sexually experienced, probably with more than one man. She joined the Baptist community in town for something to do and met Nathan there. They spent time together, and eventually her aunt suggested she marry him. Nathan liked the idea and they were married. Orleanna's opinion was not considered: it "was taken to be a foregone conclusion."

Their marriage deteriorated after Nathan served in World War II. In the Philippines, he was injured and separated from his company. The rest of the company was captured, and many of them died in the infamous Bataan Death March. Nathan blamed himself for surviving, and his guilt made him a different person. Orleanna says he returned home with a scar on his temple, bad vision in one eye, "and a suspicion of his own cowardice from which he could never recover." He now strikes his wife when she angers him and sees Adah's partial paralysis as a punishment from God. Nathan "was in full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton," she says.


This background about Orleanna and Nathan plays a role in how they react to their deteriorating situation in the Congo. Orleanna was a lively, normal young woman from a not-too-religious family, and the Nathan she married is very different from the one now in Kilanga.

Like many veterans, Nathan was permanently changed, even traumatized, by his war experience. While stationed in Luzon, Nathan was injured and separated from his company. The company was captured and suffered through the Bataan Death March, in which captured U.S. soldiers were forced to march approximately 65 miles across the island with minimal food or water. Those who grew too weak to march were slaughtered. When the five-day march was over, the men were herded into prisoner-of-war camps. Thousands of U.S. prisoners died. The Japanese commander who ordered the march was later executed for war crimes. Many veterans experienced survivor guilt, but Nathan views it as a test of bravery. Now, as things are becoming more dangerous in the Congo, he cannot retreat without believing he is a coward as he was in Luzon.

Orleanna is rarely the decision maker in the family, something culturally typical for many women at the time, when ordinarily husbands made the decisions, and wives were expected to comply. Orleanna sees herself as helpless and unable to change her circumstances. Looking back, she feels defensive: "It took me a long time to understand the awful price I'd paid." She even relates herself to the Congo, the "barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom."

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