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Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 3 Section 2 Parts 16 17 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 16–17) : The Judges (The Things We Didn't Know, Kilanga, September 1960) | Summary




Rachel and Axelroot go on a "date" to prove they really are engaged. Rachel both resents Axelroot and is intrigued by him. He offers her a cigarette—her first one—and lights it for her. She also gets her first kiss from him. He brags about his ability to get American cigarettes and offers to tell her a big secret: the American government has instructed people to get rid of Lumumba. He heard it on his radio, but Rachel thinks he is just showing off.


Adah continues her wordplay to herself, focusing on the enigmatic poems of Emily Dickinson. She listens to the villagers' mourning wails as their children die. Nathan forbids them to attend the funerals, but Adah does so anyway. Nathan visits the grieving to convince them of the virtues of baptism, but the villagers remain unconvinced. Nathan incorrectly and absurdly concludes, "The Congolese do not become attached to their children as we Americans do."

Adah also spies on Eeben Axelroot, and she overhears him talking about President Eisenhower's request to get rid of Lumumba. Adah reels with shock at first, but decides it is no different from "Grandfather God sending the African children to hell" because they were not born near a church.


Rachel, like Leah, is breaking free of her parents' rules. While walking with Axelroot she smokes a cigarette, kisses Axelroot, and wanders far past where she promised her mother she would stop. She isn't even sure if she likes him. Axelroot is a means to an end for Rachel: she wants out of this situation. If he can help, she will like him. He also feeds her vanity. Axelroot is dangerous. He threatened Ruth May, cheated the villagers, and extorted money from Rachel's family—not to mention his mysterious CIA work. Rachel admits he gives her chills, "but [she] couldn't tell for sure if it was thrill chills or the creeps." She goes ahead anyway. She thinks, what choice does she have?

Adah's affinity for Emily Dickinson makes sense. Dickinson saw a limited circle of people in her lifetime, but wrote many thoughtful and even whimsical poems, playing with language, meaning, even punctuation. Perhaps Adah feels some kinship with Dickinson, who—although not physically crippled—spent her time observing and then composing her thoughts to amuse herself and establish a peculiar relation with the rest of the world who did not understand her at all.

When Adah hears that Eisenhower wants Lumumba dead, it almost makes her faint. Today many people know of the CIA's role in various questionable enterprises around the world. In the early 1960s this was not common knowledge and was committed in deep secrecy. Also, President Dwight Eisenhower was a highly admired man. He served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II and as president of the United States for eight years. He was an older man, grandfatherly and well respected, and he kept the country safe during the early days of the Cold War. His presidential campaign slogan was "We like Ike" (his nickname). No wonder Adah is shocked to see the workings of strong-arm politics. America's true interest in Lumumba's death would not be publicly revealed until the mid-1970s and is often debated in African history.

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