The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 5:part 2
Leah Price (Mission Notre Dame de Douleur, 1964)
Summary: Mobutu’s rise to power in the Congo means that Anatole, who is still a pro-Lumumbu leader, and Leah must travel to where the assassinated prime minister still has supporters. They leave Bulungu and journey to Stanleyville, but their lack of valid currency as well as Leah’s white skin both prove liabilities. They eventually cross into the Central African Republic, where Leah is able to find shelter in a Roman Catholic mission, in the guise of a nun, while Anatole goes to work with the Lumumbists. Mobutu’s police, however, arrest, interrogate, beat and imprison Anatole in Léopoldville, meaning he and Leah face an extended separation. Leah spends her days working with the nuns in their clinic, practicing her bow and arrow, learning Lingala (the dialect of the northern Congo), and reading and re-reading Anatole’s letters. Meanwhile, in response to the rebels’ (the Simbas, Swahili for “lion”) attack in Stanleyville, the Combined Forces of the U.S. and Belgium launch an invasion of the Congo. As the helicopters fly overhead, Leah clings to stones she unearths from Africa’s soil.
Analysis: Having seized power in the Congo with the backing of the CIA, Mobutu proceeded to solidify his control and establish an authoritarian regime that would endure until his death in 1997. In this chapter, Kingsolver shows us how Mobutu’s rise affected those who supported his predecessor. Anatole and Leah are separated because he is arrested and jailed for his pro-Lumumba positions; and Leah is a danger simply because she is white. In Bulungu, Leah realizes that she has been “a burden… for being a foreigner in the eye of a storm” (p. 416); and not just any foreigner, but a white Westerner. “People were outraged by the sight of white skin, for reasons I had the sense to understand. They’d lost their hero to a bargain between the foreigners and Mobutu” (p. 418). “In the privacy of my little room I’ve damned many men to hell, President Eisenhower, King Léopold, and my own father included. I damn them for throwing me into a war in which white skin comes down on the wrong side, pure and simple” (p. 421). The issue of race looms large in this chapter, as Leah reflects that, “If God is really taking a hand in things… [h]e is making sure that color will matter forever” (p. 421). Leah perceives that race will continue to be a dividing force in Africa—in contrast to Rachel who, as we saw in the previous chapter, is content (or who does not “have the sense to understand,” and who as much as admitted that she is comfortable with the idea of making devilish pacts, so long as she is safe and privileged, p. 404) to be living in a racially divided society. There is ironic symbolism in the fact that “what was once a luxurious embassy” of the Belgians in the Congo is now the prison where Anatole is being held (p. 418), for the West’s involvement in the Congo has led to an “imprisonment” of its native people. This chapter also confirms Leah’s lack of conventional religious faith (thus, of course, compounding the irony of the fact that she is living in a convent—note how the novel’s theme of new names recurs when Leah is given the name Soeur Liselin, “married to the Lord to conceal my maiden name. I hope He understands when I pray that our marriage [i.e., her time in the convent as a sham nun] won’t last forever,” p. 415): she says she “couldn’t picture God at all. He just ended up looking like my father” (p. 422). Coupled with this chapter’s news of the Rev. Price’s fate—“The news of Father wasn’t good. He was living alone… People were waiting to see how well Jesus protected Tata Price, now that he had to get by the same as everyone…,” p. 417)—readers see the bankruptcy of the missionary and colonial efforts launched by traditional Western religion in Kilanga and the Congo. Such projects have led, not to “modern civilization” (except perhaps in its worst aspects, strife and war) nor to the kingdom of heaven on earth, but have left a legacy of violence and grief. Instead of praying to God, Leah ends the chapter praying to “old black African stones unearthed from the old dark ground that had been here all along. One solid thing to believe in” (p. 423). The solidity of the African soil may be meant as an echo of Orleanna’s sighting of the opaki in the novel’s very first chapter, and may serve a similar symbolic function: reminding readers of untamed, undomesticated, unconquered Africa, which somehow endures, despite the worst the West can do.
Rachel Axelroot (Johannesburg, 1964)
Summary: Rachel’s “marriage” to Eeben Axelroot (they have still not officially wed) proves an unhappy one. Axelroot treats her poorly and has numerous affairs. In response, Rachel plans to have an affair of her own with Daniel, a French diplomatic official whose own marriage is weak. She seduces him at a party; after they have wild sex, Rachel feels certain that Daniel will want to marry her: “A man only does that kind of thing when he has certain feelings.”
Analysis: Rachel continues to live the so-called “good life” (p. 425) in Johannesburg, even though doing so means, of course, turning a blind eye to the social injustice of apartheid. Rachel explains “you have to look the other way when the train goes by the townships” (p. 424)—meaning the poor slums where South African blacks live—and she is unwittingly speaking metaphorically as well as literally. In further development of the novel’s thematic preoccupation with sight and vision, Rachel’s whole life in Johannesburg seems to be one of looking the other way, not only at the social conditions around her but also her husband’s infidelities. (Notably, she also continues to avoid looking at—i.e., remembering—her family: she has a picture of her sisters, but “[i]t hurts my eyes to focus on it, so mostly it stays in the drawer,” p. 425). Finally, though she decides to assert herself in the only way she can, sexually. Where her mother refused to leave Nathan, Rachel is more than willing to leave Axelroot. She makes advances toward Daniel and insinuates that she would leave Axelroot to be with him—not because she loves him, but because she regards him as “a trick up [her] sleeve” (p. 426), an escape route from the “misery” (p. 425) of her relationship with Axelroot. To be sure, Axelroot is not good to Rachel: “He just treats me like his slave-girlfriend-housemaid, having a roll in the hay when he feels like it and then running off doing God knows what for months at a time, leaving me alone in the prime of my life” (p. 426). Yet the manner in which Rachel describes their relationship may make it difficult for some readers to feel too much sympathy for her. She clearly remains a vain and self-centered character. She is only concerned with herself, as she always has been. How telling is her reflection, “Do I have a mother, father, and sisters? Did I even come from anywhere? Because it doesn’t seem like it” (p. 425). (The passage may be meant to echo Cain’s question of God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” in Genesis 4, another assertion of independence from and lack of moral responsibility toward one’s fellow human beings, let alone one’s own kin.) Rachel believes her plan will succeed: “I might as well get started packing my bags and getting measured for a Dior gown” (p. 427). Because the chapter ends at that point, however, readers may harbor suspicions that things will not go according to Rachel’s plan.
Leah Price Ngemba (Bikoki Station, January 17, 1965)
Summary: On the fourth anniversary of Patrice Lumumba’s assassination—and, more importantly to Leah, of Ruth May’s death—Leah goes about her daily routine of work at the Bikoki Station as best she can, where former rubber plantation workers are being trained to provide for themselves. Leah is teaching a nutrition class at the agricultural clinic, walking to market, cooking for herself and Anatole. They are together now: through a fortunate oversight on the part of Mobutu’s fledgling dictatorship, he was released from prison. Even while in jail, however, he had been educating his fellow prisoners and his guards; now, he is the headmaster of Bikoki’s secondary school. Leah’s busy but hard days and happy marriage to Anatole, however, can only partially assuage her pain. She is still torn between her anger at her father—who is struggling on in futile missionary work, and was recently seen in Kikongo complaining that he had swallowed a live snake—and a desire to find him; she is also still grieving her dead sister. “If I can’t yet mourn a million people who left this world in a single day, I’ll start with one, and move from there.”
Analysis: Unlike her sister Rachel—for whom she feels contempt: “Rachel I could only despise more if I knew for sure which way to direct my ire” (p. 436)—Leah does seem to have a genuinely happy marriage to her husband. We see that she and Anatole can talk freely and easily to each other, teasing each other and holding each other honest by turns. Leah now speaks at least partially in the local African dialect (p. 430), a further indication of her acculturation to Africa. She realizes she has become a liminal woman, a woman of two worlds: this reality is symbolized by the running of the equatorial line not just through Bikoki Station but, specifically, “smack-dab through our bed. Anatole tells me I’m passing from the northern to the southern hemisphere whenever I go out… so I should consider myself worldly, even though it’s nearly impossible to leave the station” (p. 429). Yet Anatole is right: Leah has become “worldly” in two worlds. As further evidence, note that she and Anatole were married “in a ceremony that was neither quite Christian nor Bantu” (p. 432). Leah has carved out her own world, in a sense; her own identity, difficult as it might be to explain to herself or others, contrary though it might be to others’ expectations. But it is still marked by a keen insight, again contrary to her biblical namesake: for instance, “It’s dawning on me that I live among men and women who’ve simply always understood their whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people. I see it in their eyes when they glance up at me” (p. 437). Here, Kingsolver again evokes the motif of eyes and vision to make her point. Leah possesses two good eyes, unlike her father, who only had one; she sees herself as both a white woman and as a member of the African community, even though those respective communities might not see her as belonging to them, at least not fully. The Simbas, for example—the revolutionary army fighting Mobutu in increasingly violent ways: their “anger against all foreigners is understandable, but increasingly their actions aren’t” (p. 434)—would not accept Leah as one of them. Still, Leah can say, “I don’t really fear the Simbas, even though I’m white. Anatole is very well respected; my alliance with him will save me, or it won’t” (p. 434). Leah seems, in many respects, at peace with the place she has created for herself.
But this chapter, of course, also shows us the ways in which Leah is not at peace; for she protests the thought that she could be at peace. She compares herself to other foreigners who remained after Lumumba’s government fell: “There are others who didn’t go back… [b]ut they seem so sure of being right where they are, rooted by faith” (p. 435). Leah does not share their faith, the faith of her childhood, the faith she grew up with in her home country; and so this disconnect with other white foreigners causes some uneasiness for her. Also, she is still concerned about her father, even though she “understand[s] that he’s dangerous to me now” because he is a white foreigner (p. 435). “Sometimes at night I think about how he might be dead and I haven’t heard yet” (p. 435). The thought is almost as distressing to her as is the undeniable reality of Ruth May’s death. “As long as I’m carrying Ruth May piggyback through my days, with her voice in my ear, I still have her with me” (p. 438). Readers may deem it fitting, however, that Leah feels torn between two worlds. She is torn because she is remaining true to herself—and that is, after all, the name Anatole gave her so long ago in Kilanga, Béene. “His absolute truth? Is that what I am?” Leah asks (p. 433). The answer seems to be yes.
Adah Price (Emory Hospital, Atlanta, Christmas, 1968)
Summary: In medical school, one of Adah’s fellow students informs her of his theory that her early brain injury should have caused no permanent physical damage. Adah submits to his experimental program of having her crawl for six months (she does her work in her pediatrics rotation from a wheelchair) and, sure enough, she retrains herself to walk properly—or, more accurately, she learns to walk properly for the first time; Orleanna tells her that she had never done anything but limp after Leah her whole life. Although Adah feels that her identity is threatened by this newfound ability, she learns to accept it. She also comes to reconcile herself to her feelings of being subordinate to her twin sister, who is now back in Atlanta with Anatole and their son, Pascal. (Orleanna, meanwhile, has become busy as a civil rights marcher.) On Christmas Eve, Adah calls Orleanna and asks for an explanation of why Orleanna chose her over Leah at the river when the family was leaving Kilanga. Orleanna explains, “After Ruth May you were my youngest… When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up.” Satisfied with and comforted by this explanation, Adah dispels her previously suicidal thoughts and decides “to live with it.”
Analysis: This chapter makes the fascinating revelation that Adah’s life-long condition is the result of habit, not brain injury. As Adah says, “I am losing my slant” (p. 439). She may be losing her physical slant, but the chapter makes clear that she is not losing her “slant” on, or unique vision of, the world. The novel’s theme of correct, clear vision persists as Adah explains American supermarkets to Pascal—“They’re [full of] things a person doesn’t really need” (p. 441)—and as she identifies with Anatole: “Anatole and I inhabit the same atmosphere of solitude” (p. 441). The chapter is about Adah coming to terms with her relationship vis-à-vis Leah: “Mother says I never practiced anything but always watched Leah…” (p. 440). Now, Adah is able to stand on her own two feet, literally and metaphorically. She is “saved,” religious language for the reality that she is saved, “not from crookedness” but “from the abandonment I deserved” (p. 440). She can “live with” the fact that Orleanna did not abandon her as the family was at the Kwenge River, leaving the Congo (p. 444). Even in this newfound “salvation,” however, uncertainty remains: “Africa has slipped the floor out from under my righteous house, my Adah moral code… What I carried out of the Congo on my crooked little back is a ferocious uncertainity about the worth of a life” (p. 443). Adah is referring to the fact that she wonders whether some of the lives she, as a doctor, is saving might not be better off being lost (not that she intends to fail on her medical duty, of course; rather, she sees the suffering prolonged and even caused by medical intervention, particularly in the case of the triplets born to the teenaged mother, facing imminent abandonment from her boyfriend, the childrens’ father, pp. 442-43): “Who will argue that my drips and incubators are really the wiser plan?” (p. 443). She raises but does not resolve this serious question; instead, the chapter’s resolution is found in her pulling back from the brink of suicide (strongly suggested at p. 442) and deciding to live (p. 443). And, readers can extrapolate, she may be deciding that, as Orleanna chose not to abandon her, Adah will continue to choose not to abandon the lives entrusted to her as a doctor.
Leah Price Ngemba (Kinshasa, 1974)
Summary: Having returned to the Congo—now named Zaire, as part of the dictator Mobutu’s policy of “authenticity”—Leah and Anatole are raising their three sons (Pascal, Patrice, and the baby, Martin-Lothaire) in a slum outside Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville), the capital. They also live with Anatole’s aunt, Elzabet, and (sometimes) her daughter, Christiane. Anatole works, for little to no money, as a school teacher; Leah works as a teacher, too, for a time, teaching English for the children of the Americans who came to Zaire to build the Inga-Shaba power line, a failed infrastructure project that served only to get Zaire into a billion-dollar debt, while Mobutu lives in luxury, isolated behind the walls of his palatial compound, the Résidence.
Analysis: The relative lack of action in this chapter belies its importance as Leah’s extended reflection on the injustices facing Zaire under the Mobutu regime. Leah’s criticisms of Mobutu actually hearken back to the question her mother once asked of the Belgian King—and, implicitly, of her husband: “Is that how a father rules?” Leah poses a question quoted from the Bible: “Can one who hates right govern?” (p 448), and in this chapter she gives numerous examples, all witnessed by her firsthand, of how Mobutu “hates right,” from his supposedly “authentic” renaming of the places on Zaire’s map even while he has stripped the country of any authentic independence (p. 446); to his lavishing millions of dollars from the national treasury on his own luxurious lifestyle and pocketing more from foreign powers—“He’ll go on falling over his feet to make deals with the Americans, who still control all our cobalt and diamond mines [note Leah’s use of the possessive pronoun, indicating her now full identification with Africa and its people]. In return, every grant of foreign aid goes to Mobutu himself. We read he’s building himself an actual castle with spires and a moat near Brussels, to provide a respite, I guess, from his villas in Paris and Spain and Italy” (p. 448)—to his paying Muhammad Ali and George Foreman “five million dollars apiece” to “knock each other senseless” in the much-hyped boxing event (p. 451) now known as “the Rumble in the Jungle” even as he withholds all wages from public workers, including Anatole (p. 449). As Leah aptly summarizes the situation, Zaire is “a country whose leadership sets the standard for absolute corruption” (p. 452), and Leah “survive[s]on outrage” (p. 450). She sees the crushing effects of poverty and violence around her, notably in young Elévée’s leaving school to work as a prostitute, and in the complex bargaining process beggars and others use for the necessities of life.
Leah’s insights bear out her sister Adah’s theory, posited early in the novel, that life, like books, can be read profitably forward and backward, as a palindrome; for Leah now sees her earlier experiences in the Congo in a new light, with new meaning revealed. For example: “The children who hounded us daily for money and food weren’t dim-witted beggars; they were accustomed to the distribution of excess, and couldn’t fathom why we held ourselves apart” (p. 453). Another instance is the way Leah now understands Anatole’s dismay, in their “long-ago conversation,” at the idea of a society like the United States where food is grown “far from the people who eat it” (p. 454). Leah sees her past in the Congo in a new way, and understands that “[w]e have in this story the ignorant, but no real innocents” (p. 447).