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Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 3 Section 2 Parts 7 9 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 7–9) : The Judges (The Things We Didn't Know, Kilanga, September 1960) | Summary




Orleanna begins to pull herself out of her sickness, but Ruth May remains weak. When Rachel burns the eggs for dinner, Rachel and Leah start arguing and Orleanna intervenes. She forces Rachel to serve the ruined eggs but promises to start teaching Rachel to cook.

Orleanna behaves differently now that she is on her feet again. She says what is on her mind, whether or not it pleases Nathan. Leah is torn. She understands why Orleanna is questioning Nathan, but she wants to believe in her father. Still, she thinks, "For us to be here now ... was Father's decision ... yet he wasn't providing for us." Leah wonders, if staying in the Congo is a wrong decision, "What else might he be wrong about?"


Unexpected visitors arrive—a kind and jolly white man, whom Rachel describes as a skinny Santa Claus, along with his Congolese wife and their children. It takes some time before Rachel realizes he is Brother Fowles, the previous missionary. Brother Fowles and Leah discuss religion, and he has a vastly different view of God and religion.

When Nathan arrives, he challenges Brother Fowles, whom he believes is a poor representative of God. Brother Fowles knows the Bible just as well as Nathan, though. Nathan makes them feel unwelcome, but Brother Fowles invites Orleanna and the girls to see his boat. As they talk on the boat, it becomes clear that some missionaries still receive financial and medical support. The Prices do not, presumably because of Nathan's wrong-headed choices. Celine, Brother Fowles's wife, gives them antibiotics for Ruth May. The Fowles family leaves on their boat, and the Price women wish they could leave, too.


The antibiotics do not prevent Ruth May's illness from getting worse. Tata Ndu begins visiting the house frequently, bringing food and other gifts. Nathan believes he has finally won over Tata Ndu, but Nelson explains the real reason for the visits: Tata Ndu wants to marry Rachel. Orleanna is horrified but also amused by the idea, since Rachel despises everything about Africa. Tata Ndu already has several wives, but he wants to help the Price family, and he thinks his other wives would be "cheered up" by Rachel's "strange color."


Orleanna's illness is likely clinical depression. She has reason to be depressed, and the described behaviors match the symptoms. In these chapters, she finds a way to cope with it. Orleanna is becoming her old self again. Kingsolver carefully set the stories of young Orleanna and young Nathan in an earlier chapter to lay the groundwork for this shift in Orleanna's personality. She is not suddenly becoming a new person—she is returning to the person she once was before coming to Africa under the total domination of her husband.

Up this point, Nathan was the only character who attempted to speak for God, and his command of the Bible is legendary. Kingsolver then offers another version of religion: Brother Fowles. The Price family previously believed Brother Fowles was a semi-deranged, unreliable sinner. When he appears, though, he brings grace and cheer, along with a biblical knowledge to match, or even surpass, Nathan's. There are other ways to believe in God, Kingsolver suggests. Brother Fowles even challenges Leah, her father's pet, to think carefully about the sanctity of every word in the Bible: "God's word, brought to you by ... a chain of translators two thousand years long." Like Anatole, he invites Leah to think for herself—something Nathan finds abhorrent.

There is a certain poetic justice in Tata Ndu's pursuit of Rachel. Rachel has always focused on her looks, and those looks have attracted Tata Ndu's attention. It is also appropriate since Rachel has demonstrated her own racial prejudices. She dismissed Anatole because he is a different race, and she makes some questionable comments about Brother Fowles's Congolese wife. How perfectly ironic that she is the one chosen by a village chief.

The Rachel situation also shows how easily the Prices misunderstand the Congolese, even after all this time in Kilanga. Nelson has to explain Tata Ndu's visits. The family is horrified by the idea, and they fail to recognize how Tata Ndu is trying to help. Adah says Nelson learned to accept their "overreactions to what he felt were ordinary things, such as cobras in the kitchen." This striking and vivid image captures the gulf between "ordinary" experiences for Americans and Congolese.

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