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Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

The Judges

The Revelation, continued

The Judges, continued

Beginning until Orleanna's Sickness

Summary

Orleanna begins as usual by wallowing in her guilt, trying to explain why she did not flout Nathan's command and take the girls home. She had no money, no friends, no power, she tells us. She was "an inferior force." Also, she had really come to believe that God was on his side.

She then goes on to give us Nathan's history, explaining to us how he became the man he is. When Orleanna met Nathan she was only seventeen, a beautiful, happy, nature-worshipping girl. She and her friends visited a tent revival meeting just for fun, and the handsome young preacher was immediately drawn to the task of "saving her soul." At this point Nathan was serious but not somber; he was capable of joking and of being a loving man.

Soon after Nathan and Orleanna's marriage Nathan was drafted to serve in World War Two. Three months into his service he was wounded and separated from his regimen. While recovering in a hospital he learned of the fate that he had avoided: the notorious Bataan Death March, during which his entire regimen was killed. He was instantly changed by this news, feeling himself a coward who was despised by God. He became obsessed with his guilt, and made it his personal mission to save more souls than had died on the road from Bataan. Convinced that God was constantly watching him, he refused to ever bend at all from the service he believed God demanded of him.

Leah

Life in Kilanga is harder than ever. Without their $50 a month allowance from the Mission League, the Prices have no money, and the villagers stop coming to their house to sell them food. Only the legless Mama Mwanza takes pity on them, bringing them oranges in return for nothing. She explains that those who have plenty are required to share with those who have nothing. Leah is shocked by such goodness coming from a non-Christian. Orleanna and Ruth May rarely get out of bed now, and Nelson is convinced that they are under a curse. Leah thinks of the chicken bones that Tata Kuvundu placed outside their door, but out loud expresses only contempt for the idea of voodoo.

Adah

During one of Adah's language lessons with Nelson, she learns that her father's church is populated entirely by those who are considered beyond the pale in their own religion: twin-prone mothers, lepers, and two men who have committed the unforgivable crime of accidental murder. The villagers are taking an entirely pragmatic view toward religion, trying out this new one if the old one was bringing them bad luck, and leaving Christianity just as quickly as soon as something bad befalls them again.

Ruth May

Ruth May and her mother continue to lie in bed day after day.

Adah

Nathan is unconcerned about his wife and daughter's illness, and in fact repeatedly reprimands Orleanna for not heeding God's call and getting up out of bed. At night the girls often overhear their mother tearfully pleading with him to let her take her children home, but he angrily counters that God works in mysterious ways. The three older girls are now totally responsible for feeding and caring for the family.

Leah

Leah makes Ruth May get out of bed and tries to interest her in playing. While she pushes Ruth May on the swing, Anatole comes by with a dead rabbit for the family to eat. He tells Leah that the chief of Southern Congo, the part of the country with all the precious natural resources, is declaring independence from the rest of the country, so that they can cut their own deals with the West. The two of them talk about politics, justice, and race.

Ruth May

As Ruth May lies sick in bed she sometimes overhears her mother pleading desperately with her father. Her mother talks about awful things happening in Stanleyville, massacres of white people, plundering of their homes. One night Nelson sneaks in and hands Ruth May a gift. His gift is a little amulet called a nkisi. He tells her to blow into it, so that her spirit will be contained inside. If she is ever about to die, he tells her, she must hold onto this amulet tightly, and she will disappear and then reappear in a safe place. He tells her to think every day about this safe place so that her spirit will know where to go when the time comes.

Leah

One day, as Leah and Rachel fight about Rachel's incompetent cooking, Orleanna appears in the kitchen hut, fully in control of herself once again. She resumes her role as caretaker, but is much changed by her month in bed. She now speaks her mind to Nathan, instead of cowering in his glare. In addition, she is determined to take her children's destinies into her own hands, and she begins attempts to find a way out of Congo. She tries to bribe Eeben Axelroot to fly them out, but he refuses to work without cash up front. Leah is shocked to see her mother tossing aside Nathan's authority, but feels similar stirrings in herself. For the first time, she begins to doubt her father's judgment in keeping his family in a situation that is clearly mortally dangerous.

Analysis

With Orleanna's revelation regarding Nathan's history, we see the private life of the Prices crossing once again with some of the great and brutal tragedies of the century. This time the tragedy in question, the Bataan Death March, is suffered by the United States rather than perpetrated by them. Ten hours after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japanese bombers destroyed the U.S. fleet in Manila. General MacArthur, the U.S. Pacific commander, withdrew his troops from Luzon, where Nathan was injured, and into the mountains of the Bataan peninsula. There the troops continued to retreat, pursued by Japanese naval and infantry forces. Though literally starving, the troops held out until April 3, 1942, when they were forced to surrender. The survivors, emaciated and half- crazed with exhaustion, were then driven sixty-five miles on foot for three days, with their final destination being a prison camp. This trip, from the Bataan peninsula to the prison camp, is known as the "Bataan Death March" because roughly 15,000 of the prisoners perished en route, unable to withstand the thirst, starvation, blinding heat, and the abuse of the Japanese soldiers who whipped, beat, and shot at anyone who stumbled.

Kingsolver's main intention in invoking the Bataan Death March is to account for Nathan's extreme personality, though, presumably, a personality would have to be somewhat extreme to begin with to respond to these events as Nathan does. However, the interweaving of the Bataan Death March into the Price family's saga has further effects than simply making Nathan more believable. The presence of this tragedy in the story serves to heighten the already considerable sense of injustice and brutality that hangs over the narrative, deepening and widening our collective guilt to include more events and more segments of the world population. Until this point, it has only been Western powers that have been shown as responsible for brutality, oppression, and inhuman acts, but here we see an Eastern power partaking in this legacy of cruelty as well. The "heart of darkness" born of greed and arrogance is not limited to the West, but can and does infect all parts of humanity. It is, we might surmise, hearkening back to Nathan's symbolic garden, the real original sin of human beings.

Turning back to the exploration of Nathan's history and development, Orleanna's latest narrative not only sheds light on her husband's general religious fervor, but more specifically on his treatment of his family. In particular, it comes to seem likely that Nathan's most recent actions are not simply the result of a staggering neglect towards his wife and daughters, but that, at least in part, they are motivated by an active desire to abuse and hurt these women.

Nathan believes that God is constantly watching him, and that he must never deviate from the path that God has set out for him. He includes sexual lust among the deviations that he is to avoid, and yet he cannot help but succumb to his desires periodically. Nathan is enraged by his own sexual urges. Instead of turning his rage on himself, however, he conveniently turns his rage on his beautiful wife for tempting him, and on his daughters for being the physical manifestations of his lapses in will power. In a sense, it seems, he hates these women, resenting them for reminding him that he is not what he wants to believe himself. An active hatred would help explain not only his present endangerment of their lives, but also the constant pattern of physical and emotional abuse, as well as the complete and utter lack of tenderness.

Leah is hit harder than anyone, because all her values are changing. Can read whole book as mainly about Leah's coming of age—loss of one kind of faith and replacement by another. "It's still frightening when things you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known." "If his decision to keep us here…wasn't right, then what else might he be wrong about? It has opened up in my heart a sickening world of doubts and possibilities, where before I had only faith in my father and love for the Lord. Without that rock of certainty underfoot, the Congo is a fearsome place to have to sink or swim."

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Corrections and Ideas

by GrammarJunkie18, July 11, 2013

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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