Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 5 Section 2 Parts 8 9 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 5, Section 2 (Parts 8–9) : Exodus (What We Carried Out) | Summary

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Summary

Leah Price Ngemba

The year is 1974, and Leah and Anatole live in Kinshasa, Zaire, which used to be the Congo. Mobutu, still in charge, has changed all the place names to avoid anything "European." Leah and Anatole have three sons, plus Aunt Elisabet and her daughter, all living in what an American would consider a slum. Anatole teaches in a government school but never gets paid because the government is so dysfunctional. Leah learns one of her sons' friends is turning to prostitution at age 11 because her family needs the money. Leah appreciates now, as she never did before, just how privileged her family was when they first came to the Congo. She and her sisters could focus on only the things they didn't have, but they had so much more than the Congolese did. She occasionally receives packages from Adah in America, although the mail service is unreliable, and these packages offer great treats for the whole family, and often a "secret message" from Adah to Leah. Leah also develops a new appreciation for the Congolese ability to negotiate, to find a way to survive.

Leah is bitter about America, which has abused the Congo terribly. She briefly works for the Americans to make some money but hates it and soon quits. Her family is on the brink of starvation, although they are better off than many because they have taken their children to America to get vaccines. Mobutu, the leader of Zaire, spends most of the country's money on building himself elaborate palaces while his people starve, in a despotic pattern common in undeveloped areas.

Rachel Axelroot DuPrée Fairley

In January 1978 Rachel runs a hotel called the Equatorial. She inherited it when her "third husband" died. The hotel is a luxurious place for whites only, located in French Congo. Although Leah lives not too far away, she never visits the hotel, which causes Rachel to be resentful. Rachel, on the other hand, can't understand why Leah married an African man and had children with him, and it would never occur to her to visit Leah, since she says, "I can't see how those boys are any kin to me." Rachel believes her family fell apart when Ruth May died, and they all chose their own separate paths for survival. She brags about how wonderful her life is, but she still thinks about Ruth May. She describes sitting in the hotel bar alone after it's closed for the night and almost screaming. "Honestly, there is no sense spending too much time alone in the dark."

Analysis

Kingsolver uses these two chapters to illustrate the gap between African and American perspectives. Mobutu changes names of locations so it appears as if progress is happening, but he uses the government money to enrich himself. He is not really different from the Belgians who got rich on African labor years earlier.

Ignorance is a theme in Leah's chapter. When she opens Adah's "secret message," she finds an article from an American periodical claiming Lumumba is a frightening Communist revolutionary ready to harm people—except by the time it was published, Lumumba had been dead a month. American ignorance strikes again. Leah recognizes how often Americans—her father, President Eisenhower, or others—call the Congolese "greedy, naive, and inefficient" because of their emphasis on negotiation. Negotiation may be what has kept anyone in the country alive, but Americans don't appreciate it and still expect the country to function like the United States.

Rachel certainly doesn't understand the precarious nature of African life. She claims, "My help would rob me blind if I didn't keep every single thing locked down." To Rachel, Africans are "the help," and they should know their place. She blithely admits her hotel is "whites only," but cannot imagine why Leah refuses to visit. Rachel believes the rest of the family simply doesn't want to acknowledge her success. A careful reading suggests Rachel is not quite as heartless as she may appear. Thinking of Ruth May, she says, "I was the oldest ... There was just a minute ... maybe I could have grabbed her." But she insists she is not guilty: "I refuse to feel the slightest responsibility. I really do." Rachel seems to be protesting too much, particularly as she follows this statement with complaining about spending time alone in the dark. Even Rachel, with her busy, apparently happy life, cannot let go of what happened to Ruth May.

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