The garden to Mama Tataba's departure
While her sisters help their mother set up house Leah tags along with her father as he tries to plant a "demonstration garden" using the seeds he has brought along from home. His intention is to provide food for his family, and also to show the natives how they can provide for themselves with simple agricultural principles. Mama Tataba watches over him skeptically. Mama Tataba, we learn here, is the Price's live-in helper, left to them by the previous missionary, Brother Fowles. Leah has overheard her parents discussing Brother Fowles and understands that he was an Irish Catholic from New York who he went crazy and began consorting inappropriately with the inhabitants. In addition to Mama Tataba, Brother Fowles has also left another gift for the Prices: the parrot Methuselah.
Mama Tataba tells Reverend Price that he is planting incorrectly, and instructs him to make little mounds for the seeds. She also warns that the plant he is currently grappling with is a Poisonwood tree, and that it bites. He dismisses both her warnings with contempt. The next morning Reverend Price's arms and hands are covered in a painful rash, and his right eye is swollen shut, from where he wiped his brow with poisonwood-smeared hands. Leah notices that Mama Tataba reshaped their garden overnight, creating long piles of dirt like burial mounds. Leah and her father go outside and level the mounds, replanting the seeds in the flat ground.
Though it is the middle of the summer, Reverend Price declares an impromptu Easter Sunday to muster some enthusiasm for church. Until now, attendance has been almost zero. Though his intention for the day is a mass baptism, the men present in church adamantly refuse this suggestion. Instead, Reverend Price settles for a pageant, followed by a church supper down by the river.
Drawn by the promise of food, nearly the entire village attends the picnic. Orleanna had immediately recognized this picnic as a chance to gain some support for the church, and so she has killed nearly all the chickens left to them by Brother Fowles and spends the morning frying them. Reverend Price does not even notice how his wife has won over the crowd with her generosity and good cooking. He spends the picnic staring glumly out at the water, thinking of the baptism that has failed to occur.
Ruth May overhears Mama Tataba and her own mother talking about their next door neighbor Mama Mwanza, who has lost both of her legs in a house fire, but continues to care for her tremendous family as if nothing were wrong with her. Ruth May reflects on the fact that many people in Kilanga are physically disabled, with missing limbs and eyes, and that no one seems to even notice this. Instead of staring at Adah for her handicap, as people did back home, here people only stare in horror at Rachel's platinum blond hair.
Ruth May then overhears another discussion, this one between her mother and father. Reverend Price declares that the Congolese sinfully mistreat their bodies, neglecting these sacred objects. Orleanna points out that the Congolese need to use their bodies like Westerners use tools, and that their bodies, therefore, are bound to get worn out. The Reverend is angered by her response.
The rainy season begins earlier than the Prices expected. When the torrential rain stops, the Price family discovers that their garden has been completely ruined. The rain has swamped the flat ground, and washed the seeds away. Leah gets down on her knees and begins gathering the seeds. She and her father replant, but this time they follow Mama Tataba's advice and pile the dirt into mounds.
Using Mama Tataba's method, the garden flourishes, but not in the expected way. The plants grow lush and tremendous, taking on an odd jungle-like character, but none of them bear fruit.
Rachel's birthday comes, and Orleanna is devastated to discover that the Betty Crocker cake mix has solidified in the humidity. It is unusable. Later that day, Methuselah squawks out the word damn, and all three older girls are punished since the crime of uttering the profanity cannot be definitely pinned to any of them. All three girls know that their mother is the one responsible for teaching the bird the profanity, exclaiming miserably over Rachel's ruined cake, but none of them give her away.
Walking home from church one day, Mama Tataba declares to the girls, "Reverend Price better give that up," and Adah suspects that she is referring to his fixation on baptism. At dinner that night, Reverend Price tells a story about a Mercedes truck that drove all the way from Leopoldville to Kilanga using little boys fanning elephant grass in place of a fan belt. His message is that anything is possible, so long as you are willing to adapt properly.
Reverend Price delivers a sermon focusing exclusively on the merits of baptism, and afterward Mama Tataba reprimands him angrily. The Price women watch from the window, but cannot hear what is being said. Mama Tataba then comes inside and informs the women that she is leaving them. She teaches them a few vital skills they will need to have in her absence and then takes off.
Leah goes out to look for her father and finds him examining a tremendous insect. He tells her that the reason their plants are not producing any vegetables, is that there are no pollinators suited to these particular plants. An African insect has no idea what to do with a Kentucky Wonder bean, he explains. Leah then asks what Mama Tataba said to him, and he tells her that she let him know why the villagers are so against the idea of baptism. A crocodile ate a young girl a few months before the Price's arrival, and now none of the adults will allow the children near the river. As Reverend Price broods, Methuselah begins to spout words again. Reverend Price flings the bird from his cage, and they watch as he flies hesitantly to the highest tree.
Nathan's demonstration garden is symbolic on three levels. First, the garden itself is representative of the attitudes and beliefs that the Prices carry with them into Africa. Like those attitudes, the plants are wildly inappropriate in this environment. The plants become unrecognizable, almost grotesque in their hugeness. More significantly, though, they are rendered inert and useless. They cannot vegetate in these conditions.
The very act of planting the garden rests upon one of the wildly inappropriate attitudes that the Prices carry with them. The venture reveals Nathan's blind arrogance, the belief that the Congolese are so backward that they have no idea how to grow their own food. It is beyond Nathan's capacity to reason that, if the climate permitted this sort of garden, Africans would have planted it themselves long ago. It does not occur to him to consider whether there is some reason, other than their utter stupidity and backwardness, which might account for the fact that there is little agriculture in Kilanga.
Finally, the garden is symbolic because of its biblical resonance. Leah often speaks of the demonstration garden in biblical terms, saying, for instance that, "the grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes." Gardens, and in particular the Garden of Eden, play a prominent role in Christian tradition. It is in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve, the original man and woman, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, at the snake's provocation, thereby imbuing all future generations of human being with original sin. There is a clear irony in drawing a connection between Nathan's undertaking and Adam and Eve's. Adam and Eve sin by grasping for truth and knowledge that is not intended for them. Nathan, by contrast, sins through his willful ignorance, through his refusal to learn anything about the culture around him, and to enlarge and deepen his understanding of the world.
Another interesting theme that gets touched upon in this section, is the differing conceptions of embodiment that prevail in the Western and African cultures. In Kilanga, missing limbs and other handicaps are socially normalized. Bodies are viewed as necessary tools useful to other ends, utilized and thus expected to be damaged. In contrast, the Prices view their bodies as the very things that must be protected, bodily safety being the end to which most other actions are undertaken. Our attitudes toward our bodies are fundamental to the way we approach the world, since it is through our bodies that we do approach the world. The wide divergence between the Prices and their neighbors on this issue, therefore, indicates the vastness of the cultural divide between them.
Kingsolver, incidentally, does not seem completely neutral between the two different conceptions of embodiment. Adah, for instance, is viewed as a tragedy and something of a freak in her own culture. Yet it is Adah's disability that nurtures and enables her unique perspective—her brilliant social criticism and her fascinating inner world. In fact, when Adah loses her handicap later in the book, she is ambivalent about her "cure," unsure whether she is happier without it than with it. She misses the unique perspective that it gave her.
The parallel here between race and handicap is clear. Both being black and being handicapped represent two non-standard ways of being embodied. Both are viewed, at least by certain segments of the population, as less desirable ways of being embodied. Yet there is nothing inherently worse about them. They are only made worse because they are viewed as such. As Adah puts it with regard to her handicap, "The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right" ("Exodus: Adah Price, Atlanta January 1985). The word "Caucasian" could easily be substituted for "able- bodied," and the message would ring as true.
Corrections: There are several mistakes in this article, from plot-related to grammatical. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: a) Adah's right side, not her left, is crippled, b) the author used "effect" as a verb, and c) it's wringing, not ringing, near the end. Someone should probably look over this sometime. Also, the article presents Nathan Price as a completely flat character; however, he has his moments of uncertainty (for example, when he reshapes his garden into mounds, or when he reacts to the news of the little girl... Read more→
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