Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 4 Section 2 Part 12 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 4, Section 2 (Part 12) : Bel and the Serpent (What We Lost, Kilanga, January 17, 1961) | Summary




When told her child is dead, Orleanna does not become hysterical. She dresses herself and tears down the mosquito netting. She gathers up Ruth May's body, bathes it as if Ruth May were alive, then wraps it in the netting while Leah watches. Nathan does nothing except repeat, "She wasn't baptized yet." Nelson makes a native funeral arch over the body, and the women of the village come to grieve. As the women cry, Leah collapses on the ground in grief.

Orleanna gives things away to the villagers. The village children come to stare at their dead playmate, while the older girls recite psalms and any prayer they remember. At that moment, an unexpected rainstorm bursts over their drought-stricken village. Nathan emerges and baptizes the Congolese children in the rain. Leah realizes he does not know the village children, not even the ones who were Ruth May's friends. The children, confused by Nathan's actions, begin chanting their garbled version of "Mother May I," the game they used to play with Ruth May.


When the crisis comes, it is Orleanna who copes and Nathan who is useless. Orleanna does not talk. She just functions. Earlier she said she knew something bad would happen, which may explain her lack of surprise. Leah seems frightened of her mother, who cannot—or will not—stop moving. Yet later in the chapter Leah recites prayers and Bible passages because "one sentence would follow upon another ... my only way of knowing what to do." Like Orleanna, Leah can only do the task placed right in front of her. She has no larger plan to follow.

Even the death of his daughter does not change Nathan. He thinks only about how Ruth May hadn't been baptized. He had decided to wait to baptize her so she could be a symbol, but it is unclear whether he blames himself for Ruth May's theoretical banishment from heaven. After all, as Adah made clear, unbaptized babies do not go to Nathan's God's heaven. Leah's reaction to Nathan echoes the Congolese women of earlier chapters. Nathan tried to console them, saying their dead children would be in heaven if baptized, but the women were more concerned with the loss of their children on earth. Leah feels the same way. She finds her father repulsive now, "narrow-witted and without particular dreams." She has a new understanding of her neighbors, who all have lost children: "Our suffering now was no greater than theirs had been." In her own way, Leah, like Rachel, realizes their family is marked forever by this loss.

Nathan has wanted to baptize the village children since he arrived in the Congo. Now a sudden rainstorm allows him to turn Ruth May's funeral into the moment he wanted. This is but a hollow triumph, meaningful only in Nathan's head. Nathan claimed Ruth May could not be baptized because she was too young to understand, but the village children have no idea what is happening. They respond to their baptisms by chanting "Mother May I," but Nathan does not know or care what they are saying. The children come to mourn Ruth May, and Nathan uses the moment to advance his own agenda. There is no clearer illustration of Nathan's perverted view of the religion he has been determined to impose on the Congolese.

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