The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible Summary and Analysis of Chapters 49-61

In a flashback scene, Orleanna Price recalls the coup that overthrew Patrice Lumumba from power in the Congo. From information that she pieced together years later, she realized that a call was made from President Eisenhower's office to the local Congo CIA office on the day of Rachel's seventeenth birthday. That call gave the CIA permission to overthrow Lumumba's government because they believed he was a "dangerous" man. The CIA and Belgians had recruited a man named Mobutu to become colonel in the Congolese army and to place Lumumba under house arrest. Lumumba escapes, but is captured after a "South African mercenary pilot" hears him speak to a small village close to Kilanga and radios in his whereabouts. Lumumba is recaptured and taken to Katanga where he is beaten and killed. Orleanna has a hard time believing that while all of that was going on, she was oblivious, wrapped up in the small needs of her family, though the smallness of those needs does give her comfort in her ignorance.

Leah's own faith is beginning to falter along with that of the village. The drought has now turned into a looming catastrophe with most of the water sources for the village drying up. In site of this catastrophe, Tata Ndu shows up at the church service. During the middle of Reverend Price's sermon, which he takes from the apocrypha, Tata Ndu stands up and declares that the village must vote on whether Tata Jesus will be the god of the village. The church members set up bowls to throw pebbles into and begin voting. Reverend Price, while at first encouraging, soon becomes furious when it appears the election will not go in Tata Jesus's favor. He begins to yell at Tata Ndu, but Tata Ndu then begins to lecture Revered Price. He tells them that the white men brought Jesus and democracy and he doesn't understand why the two shouldn't mix. In the end Tata Jesus loses the election.

Soon, Tata Ndu calls together the village to participate in a massive hunt for animals so that the village can have food. Leah decides that she wants to participate with the men, using her bow and arrow to hunt for food. This causes an uproar in the village and all the men gather to hold a council meeting to discuss whether she can participate. Anatole begs Leah's case, but Tata Kuvudundu is firmly against the idea, saying it will disrupt the ways of the world. Finally, Tata Ndu takes a village vote and Leah wins. This leads to a terrible row between Reverend Price and Leah - and just as the Reverend is about to beat her for being insolent, she runs off into the forest where she "stays scarce" for several days. Meanwhile, a curse is put on Anatole for his part in the matter and he narrowly misses being bitten by a mamba snake that is found in his bedroom.

The night before the big hunt no one in the village sleeps. At dawn all of the women, carrying baskets, go towards a great field and begin to make a giant circle around it. They then light the grass on fire and begin fanning the flames so that they move towards the center of the circle. As the fire moves, all of the women begin to pick up the edible bugs and insects. As the fire gets closer to the center, the animals that had been asleep in the field begin to realize they are trapped by a circle of fire. As they panic, some jump out of the circle, only to be shot by the hunters. It is during this hunting exercise that Adah learns something about the nature of life: "The death of something living is the price of our own survival...We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." Leah kills a young impala, though the kill is controversial. She tracks the animal as it leaves the fire and fires her arrow, but as she approaches she sees two other arrows in the beast as well. One of Tata Ndu's sons comes over to claim the kill for himself, but Nelson comes to defend Leah and show how it was really her arrow that killed the impala. He insults Tata Ndu's son by calling him a "woman," an insult that leaves Leah feeling both excited and confused.

After the hunt, Rachel has her own crisis. She can't help but feel disgusted and sorry for the scene of the villagers, and her own sisters, skinning animals and eating bugs for their survival. They were all just "dumb animals." As the villagers bring the meat back to divide up, fights begin to break out between everyone. Tata Ndu's sons insult Leah, who then insults them back. Tata Ndu declares that the Prices had forfeited their right to meat, as well as Anatole. Soon fighting and stealing begins, and what was supposed to be a celebration of plenty turns into a fight for what is not enough. There is also tension back at the Price house as Leah and Reverend Price are still fighting over her role in the hunting debacle. Nelson then comes running into the house proclaiming that someone has put the evil curse on the Price's chicken house where he sleeps. He refuses to go back out there, but Reverend Price won't let him sleep in the main house and gives into Congolese "false idols." Nelson stays out on the porch, whimpering to be let in, until Leah and the rest of the girls defy their father by going out and helping Nelson set a trap to catch anyone that might be trying to do them harm. They lay a bed of ashes around the chicken house so that they'll know if anyone tries to sneak in.

In the morning Nelson and the girls sneak out of the house to see what their trap had caught. Nelson takes a big pole and when he opens the chicken house door he sees a green mamba snake curled around two dead chickens and their eggs. Nelson hits the snake until it leaves and they all discover the footprints of a man with six toes - Tata Kuvudundu - who had planted the snake to kill Nelson. Suddenly, they hear a scream and realize its coming from Ruth May, who had crumpled to the ground and has started to turn blue from a lack of oxygen. Nelson rips off her shirt and they discover two small puncture wounds - a green mamba bite - on her chest. Nelson yells for Leah to get help, but they are all paralyzed by what is happening. Rachel has the revelation, as she thinks about having to wake her mother to tell her that Ruth May is dead, that she had once thought her self different from the Congolese because she had never imagined that their tragedies would be her tragedies. Now they all know differently.

When Ruth May's body is brought into the house there is only a stunned silence. Mrs. Price begins taking down all the mosquito nets and begins making a shroud for her daughter. She places her on a table in the front yard and Nelson makes a funeral arch. All of the women of the village come and wail for the dead child, just as they did for their own children during the rainy season. Reverend Price has nothing to say - only "She wasn't baptized." From nowhere, rain begins to fall on the village, and Reverend Price goes out into the front yard where Ruth May's play friends had gathered and begins baptizing the children in the rain.


This section of the book, entitled "What We Lost" brings a climax to the chaos that the Prices bring with them to Kilanga and also the chaos they will leave in their wake. The section starts with the political intrigue of the assassination of Lumumba that throws the Congo into a period of civil war and turmoil. Though the Prices have little knowledge of what is exactly going on outside of their village, the larger situation of war and fighting that characterizes the rest of the country is happening on a much smaller level within the confines of the village.

This section further reveals the chaos that can result by forcing systems of rule and regulation on a culture without respecting the former systems of rules that governed the society beforehand. In Kilanga, these systems are democracy and Christianity - two entities that Reverend Price conflate with each other. These systems turn against the Reverend, however, when the citizens of Kilanga vote out Tata Jesus from the church because of the severe drought that is overtaking the land. The Kilanga people, being very practical about their use of divinity, simply don't see what practical good Christianity is bringing, and thus use another tool they've been given, to rid themselves of what is not useful.

Though this is a setback for Reverend Price's mission, and a slightly humorous scene, the Congolese's use of democracy becomes troublesome when the village takes a vote on whether or not to allow Leah to hunt. This divides the village between those who follow Anatole and his pleas for reason, and those that follow Tata Kuvudundu and his proclamations of evil spirits. Once the hunt takes place, with the energy of blood and killing, fights break out amongst the rival factions of the village - and stealing and looting of the meat becomes rampant. The former way of doing things in Kilanga was to talk things over until a consensus could be reached - but this use of democracy only makes one group unhappy, ultimately precipitating violence. Though they couldn't have known it, a similar situation developed throughout the entire country as unhappy citizens rose up in violence to protest what they believed was critical injustice.

With the hunt, Leah's character makes her full transformation from victim to empowered woman. The character of Leah, moreover, now represents a new vision of femininity, one that will lead her family out of the captivity of Revered Price. But Kingsolver leaves no illusions about the consequences of such a re-visioning of the role of femininity. When Leah stands up for herself against Tata Ndu's sons, the village is quickly thrown into chaos. Kingsolver suggests that gender remains a divisive issue across cultures.

On a personal level, with the death of Ruth May, the Prices realize they have fully become part of the Kilanga village, both in life and death. Ruth May's death finally brings the reality of the Congolese people forefront into the minds of Rachel and Leah. Though they might have thought they could return to America and resume the life they left, they now know they have past a point where they can never go back to once they once knew. As they were slowly reduced to poverty, and now death, they join in the one pervasive aspect of Congolese life they had not been able to experience before: grief.

Ruth May's death is certainly the climax of the novel as well as the pinnacle of several themes. First, her death represents the move in the novel from hope to grief. Ruth May had represented the innocence and naivete of the Prices, but now that she is gone, the family becomes burdened by impossible grief - clouded by the lack of sunshine. At the same time, the novel also shifts from the biblical theme of Genesis - beginnings - to Exodus - leaving. The Price's now must attempt to leave Africa, but in turn, they will also leave their blood upon the soil.