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The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 4, Section 1 : Bel and the Serpent (Orleanna Price) | Summary



Orleanna here provides factual and also imaginative historical perspective on the Congo. She describes white men discussing the country as if it were a chess board. Placing her life's events in the context of the larger historical narrative, Orleanna reports that the decision to kill Lumumba took place on Rachel's 17th birthday. Orleanna imagines Eisenhower's thoughts: "He'd given Lumumba a chance ... the Congo had been independent for fifty-one days." Orleanna describes how people helped Lumumba escape from prison, but he was recaptured and "beaten so savagely they couldn't return the body to his widow without international embarrassment."

Orleanna says in January 1961, "Lumumba paid with a life and so did I." She describes waiting for something that would free her from Nathan. Now she wonders: could she have prevented this if she had walked away earlier? If she had never married Nathan, the death wouldn't have happened, but her children would never have been born.


The chess match imagery expresses how many white-ruled countries talked about African or Asian nations in the post–World War II era. The superpowers and the colonial powers treated the imperial system like a game, with little consideration for how their machinations affected millions of people. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s will know that Americans also believed they knew what the Vietnamese needed, and they worried about the spread of Communism. In the Congo, Lumumba had received Soviet support, so he was believed to be a Communist danger to be replaced by a leader who would be sympathetic to American interests. They did not wonder if the leader would be sympathetic to his own people. The chess match metaphor, with its black and white pieces, also creates some interesting dual meaning in phrases such as, "Lumumba is ... disinclined to let White control the board, preferring the counsel and company of Black."

Kingsolver points out the American timeline for success: 51 days of independence before Lumumba was considered a problem. Anatole has explained the Congolese preference for negotiation and compromise—something nearly impossible to achieve in 51 days. Like Nathan, the American government was not interested in Congolese culture or the people. They only assumed they knew best and acted on the basis of those assumptions.

Orleanna tries to think of how she could have prevented the tragedy, but "what if" games lead nowhere. Could they have not come to the Congo? Yes, but Nathan would have led them into crisis somewhere else. If she hadn't married Nathan, her girls would never have been born. "It's a fine and useless enterprise, trying to fix destiny," Orleanna says. The reader still doesn't know which child will die, but Orleanna's thoughts have prepared the reader for the tragedy to come.

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