The Things We Carried
With the transfer of narrative from mother to daughters we are carried back to the year 1959, and from Sanderling Island, Georgia to Congo, Africa. We will now get the story of what actually happened to the Price family, told as it occurs.
The title of this section of the book is "The Things we Carried." Fourteen-year- old Leah begins enumerating the things her family carries, listing all of the seemingly necessary tools of civilized life that the Price family carry in with them to the Congo. Unable to imagine life without a thimble, a pair of scissors, Band-Aids, a hand-mirror, or Betty Crocker cake mixes (for the girls' birthdays), the family hides these possessions and others on their person (in waistbands and underwear) and in handbags, to skirt around the airline's limit on baggage weight. Before they have even reached Africa, Leah begins to realize that all of these objects are a burden, weighing her down and making her physically uncomfortable. Still, Leah is optimistic about their mission to Africa, unquestioningly sharing her father's view that they are carrying out God's work by bringing enlightenment to the uncivilized natives.
The Price family is met at the airport by Reverend and Mrs. Underdown, two Belgian missionaries. The Underdowns try to fill the Prices in on all they will need to know about their future home, the village of Kilanga, explaining that it is no longer the thriving mission it once had been. The Prices will be the only Westerners present. The Underdowns load the Prices onto a tiny plane, piloted by the unfriendly Eeben Axelroot. They fly silently to Kilanga. When they touch down, the entire village is assembled, waiting to greet them.
Five-year-old Ruth May's version of the arrival focuses mainly on her expectations and preconceptions, particularly as these relate to the natives of Congo. She tells us that black people belong to the biblical Tribe of Ham, descendents of Noah's youngest son. Ham was a bad son, she explains, just like she is sometimes bad. When Noah was drunk and naked, Ham laughed at his father and was punished with the curse of dark skin and everlasting slavery. As if this follows logically as the outcome of Noah's curse, Ruth May then goes on to remark that back home in Georgia blacks are kept separate from whites, because "Jimmy Crow," who makes the laws, believes that this is the best policy.
Fifteen-year-old Rachel is the adolescent beauty queen of the group, and her version of the arrival is told with unambiguous exasperation and revulsion. She is horrified by the stench of body odor as the Kilanga villagers surround them in a warm welcome, and miserable as they rush the Prices toward a "dirt-floor patio with a roof over it" which turns out to be the church. In the church the villagers start a large fire, and begin pounding on drums and singing in their native language. It takes Rachel a long while to figure out that what these people are singing are Christian hymns. Even though she herself shares none of the religious faith of her father and sister Leah, she feels scandalized by the realization that the natives are singing hymns, though she admits that she supposes they have every right to sing these songs.
Nathan gets up on his chair and delivers a fire and brimstone sermon, roaring about sinners and nakedness. He points his finger toward a bare-breasted woman standing by the pot of food, and all eyes follow his, mortifying the woman. "Nakedness" he bellows, pointing at her, "and darkness of the soul." He tells the villagers that he will deliver them from this place of darkness into one of light, and though none of them, except a young man in yellow, can speak English. His tone of voice is sufficiently terrifying to upset them. They had begun as a joyous audience, cheering the Reverend's words, but now they sit in silence, shifting uncomfortably. A few of the women pull their sarongs up to cover their breasts, and a few other women leave altogether without eating.
Adah is Leah's identical twin, but was born, she tells us, with a condition called "hemiplegia," which means that the entire left side of her body is unusable. She cannot access the left side of her brain, and she drags her left foot along with a limp. In addition, she chooses not to speak, except in emergencies.
Adah boasts that she sees the world differently than other people see it. She reads books backwards, and loves to invent palindromes. Yet she presents us with our first clear-eyed view of life in the village of Kilanga. Kilanga, she tells us, is nothing but a row of mud houses that runs along the Kwilu River. Adah picks up on the fact that the people of Kilanga are extremely modest in their own way. Though the women do not cover their breasts, a Kilanga woman would never leave her yard without covering every inch of her leg. They are shocked to see the Price women in pants.
With no radio or mail service, the Prices are dependent on the very undependable Eeben Axelroot for any news of the outside world.
With each switch in narrative voice, we are made to fully inhabit another Price woman's point of view. The from an extremely limited first person point of view, they are told with a focus on the inner thoughts and feelings of the narrator. Rather than just present the events she is witnessing, each girl presents the events as she herself experiences them. The plot is thus filtered through the reactions of the four Price girls. This narrative device is crucial to Kingsolver's overall aim. Since her intention is to present each woman's response to the events in the Congo, we must be limited to a first-hand account of each woman's experience. Though they are all present at the same events, they do not all have the same experiences, and it is their experiences, rather than any objective occurrence that they carry with them and react to as they mature.
The narrative technique—both the technique of utilizing five separate narrators, and the technique of allowing us into the inner world of each narrator—allows a much deeper understanding of who these women are. We see how they view themselves, how they view the world, and how they view each other. Any one of these angles would be sufficient to give us a sense of who the characters are, but when put together they give us an intricately robust picture that would be very difficult to achieve otherwise.
Ruth May's point of view is extremely revealing in this section, not because of what it tells us about her, but because of what it exposes about the culture in which she was raised. In her innocence, she betrays the deep-seated racism of the United States in the 1950s, speaking of Africans as the cursed Tribes of Ham, and babbling confusedly about "Jimmy Crow." The Jim Crow laws to which she is referring here were a rigid set of rules, set up in the nineteenth century and not abolished until well into the 1960s, which governed every aspect of African American existence. In addition to forcing them to study in separate, inferior schools, the Jim Crow laws required blacks to use separate drinking fountains, public restrooms, restaurants, and so forth. These laws not only kept blacks socially segregated from whites, but also kept them economically inferior and politically powerless.
By calling attention to American racism, Ruth May connects the obscure and little known injustices our country perpetrated in Africa to prominent and well- known injustices our country perpetrated at home. By establishing a pattern of abuse, Kingsolver's indictment of the United States government becomes that much stronger. When viewed in connection to domestic racism, the U.S. machinations in the Congo cannot be dismissed as unfortunate slips in morality and good judgement. Far from unusual "slips," these actions, when viewed in the light of Jim Crow laws, can only be seen as the natural outgrowth of a callused attitude toward certain segments of the world population. In addition to strengthening the indictment against the United States, the invocation of domestic racism also further calls attention to our collective guilt as a nation.
Where Ruth May accidentally exposes a certain sort of moral blindness, Adah consciously exposes another by pointing out that the Congolese have their own codes of modesty. Nathan and the other Prices view the Congolese as shameless because the women do not cover their breasts; it never occurs to anyone but Adah that the Congolese might not lack modesty, but merely find different parts of the body worthy of it. The Congolese could easily call the Price women shameless for revealing their legs in public.
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