In Book Four: Bel and the Serpent, the girls recount the things that were lost: the villages’ faith in Jesus, the peace in the community, Leah’s respect for her father and his preaching, and the life of dear Ruth May. When Tata Ndu chooses to utilize the white man’s invention of election to conduct a vote for or against Jesus as the God of Kilanga, the congregation tosses their stones against Jesus. As the Kilanga people turn away from Nathan’s teachings, so does Leah, who now sees her father as ignorant and cruel. She wants to hunt like the men, and though Tata Ndu and her father disagree, the village votes to allow her, and she does. Tata Ndu, determined to bring bad luck to her and prove he was right, takes her portion of the hunt and disrupts tradition so the community members begin turning on one another to get the most meat, turning a once-significant ritual into a battle of greed.
After all of this takes place, Nelson sees an omen of danger over the chicken house where he sleeps. The girls help him set a trap to identify whatever might come to him. When they check in the morning, there is a green mamba curled up in the coop, along with the footprints of the witchdoctor in the ashes they spread on the ground. In the chaos of the snake striking and disappearing, Ruth May is bitten. Tragically, the venom is too much for her, and she dies in front of her sisters. As the family mourns her death, the girls realize that they will not be going home the same as they came. They recognize that the villagers, who lost their own children, suffered just as much as they do, and they finally understand that they are no different after all. In the end, as the rain drenches the girls and the children who have come to mourn Ruth May, Nathan, who fears for his daughter’s soul, carries out the ritual of baptism for each child in penance for not baptizing his own daughter.
Doubt; Greed; False idols; Death and despair
- The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simple things begin. (Orleanna, 379)
- Hunger of the body is altogether different from the shallow, daily hunger of the belly. Those who have known this kind of hunger cannot entirely love, ever again, those who have not. (Adah, 413)
- The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep. (Adah, 416)
- Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened…I’d never planned on being someone different. Never imagined I would be a girl they’d duck their eyes from and whisper about as tragic, for having suffered such a loss. (Rachel, 437-438)
Questions to Ponder
- In the story of Bel and the Serpent, Daniel disproves the existence of Bel by setting a trap for the religious leaders. In this book of “The Poisonwood Bible,” the girls and Nelson prove that the “evil spirit” cursing the chicken coop was the witch doctor through a similar technique. In addition, Tata Ndu creates chaos at the hunt to prove that Leah’s presence would cause bad luck. While false gods are disproved in this section, how does Ruth May’s death affect the girls and their faith in Jesus? What about the vote in the church? Is Christ, too, a false God in their eyes?
- Adah realizes that, in the Congo, she is whole. “In…America, I was a failed combination of too-weak body and overstrong will. But in Congo I am those two things perfectly united: Adah” (410). What does this revelation mean to her? Why do you think she spells her full name here, rather than “Ada,” as she normally does?
- When Leah is mourning Ruth May, she prays even though she doesn’t have faith. What might be the significance of this? Are there times when we must pray even when we have doubts?
*Quotes cited according to 2003 HarperTouch edition.