Friday, January 27, 2012

Adah, The Superego among Kingsolver's Women in The Poisonwood Bible

Adah is the third daughter from Barbara Kingsolver’s rich, complex, satisfying book, The Poisonwood Bible. She is Leah’s twin sister, the Superego to Leah’s Ego and Rachel’s Id. She is also a sacrificial lamb, finally saved by Orleanna and her own keen intellect.

The biblical story of Jephthah includes his terrible sacrifice of Adah (not actually thus named in the Bible, but so-called thereafter). Jephthah barters with God in exchange for his daughter. When God delivers unto Jephthah, he must offer his daughter who does not fight for her life. She is willing to die for her father and God.

Kingsolver’s Adah also accepts her lot, even death itself or the partial death of her limbs. Her twin, Leah, consumed more from Nature while in the womb in order to survive. Adah, thus deprived, is born with a weaker, deformed side, resulting in an uneven, slow gait, one that could take her life when the Prices must flee from the oncoming plague of ants. Orleanna leads her daughters away in haste, sacrificing Adah, if she cannot keep up, in order to carry baby Ruth May to safety. A native Kilangan scoops up Adah, and it is only because of him that she survives.

Yet Adah does not resent her mother and sisters. She accepts her role without breaking or complaint. Her thoughts, however, revealed to readers, tell another story. Adah longs to be chosen, to be reassured even though she does not expect her mother to do so. Such resignation to her disability and place in the family leads to extensive reflection and cynicism, characteristics that endear readers to her.

Readers know that Adah is amazing. She possesses wry wit, is extremely well read, and not at all spiritual in spite of a Baptist, Bible-thumping patriarchal home. Few know these truths about Adah because she is reticent to speak. Many assume she cannot speak.

Thus, Adah exists at the margins of family, unlike anyone else in the family. She sees Orleanna’s failures as a woman and mother without despising her for them. She recognizes her father as a hypocrite and fraud. She sees Rachel’s childish, Id-like nature, and she recognizes Leah’s abilities to put away childish things in order to provide for and nurture not only her sisters, but all of Africa. Leah needs to build and belong, and she marries a man who wishes to do the same.

After Ruth May dies and Africa is unsafe for ex-patriots, Orleanna makes several hasty, even instinctual choices. She leaves Leah, too sick to travel, in the care of Anatole, the African man who will become her husband. Rachel climbs aboard a plane flown by Eben Axelroot without Orleanna’s objection. Orleanna also leaves behind Ruth May’s body, picking up Adah instead because now Adah is the least, the one with the greatest need.

Having at last been chosen liberates Adah. She can now come fully of age in the knowledge that she is not to be the Price sacrificial lamb any longer. She returns to the U. S. and begins to study science, finding in it a religion she can embrace. A professor helps her overcome her disabilities by training her brain to teach her errant body to become whole. Adah also overcomes her silence, but still chooses a career that does not require extensive conversation. She becomes a respected researcher who searches for treatments and cures for the diseases that plague people in poorer regions. Thus, Adah serves Africa even after she comes home.

Adah also becomes her mother’s caretaker. She watches Orleanna make and harvest from a huge garden, earning enough money to live simply and send the rest to meet the great, raw needs of Africa. Adah watches her mother try, unsuccessfully, to forgive herself for not taking her daughters to safety, for yielding to Nathan’s madness, for letting oppression and depression turn her from her duty.

Like Rachel, Adah is always older than her years. Unlike Rachel, Adah changes once she becomes the chosen one, chosen for life rather than sacrifice. This gift from her mother grants Adah the opportunity to flourish, and she does.

Reading Challenge:

Pick up a copy of The Poisonwood Bible. Enjoy!

Writing Challenge:

Like Sophie in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Orleanna must choose between two of her children. Defend Orleanna’s choice, then write the opposite argument in which you condemn Orleanna for saving Ruth May instead of Adah.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

I’ve just finished reading A Place of Execution by Val McDermid, and it reminds me of my discomfort in using the word, hang. As a means of execution, hanging is rare, at least in the Western world and Europe so it just doesn’t roll off the tongue often. The word and its forms are more often heard in comedy routines and situation comedies when referring to the male anatomy, and this vulgar usage is what gives me pause. I would like to say hang and hanged when describing actions I might take with clothing or flags. But hanged seems archaic, even wrong. Is it? Allow me to explain.

I should not say that I hanged my coat on a hanger. I should say that I hung my coat on a hanger and that I hanged a man at dawn by order of the court.

In other words, hang, hanged, and hanged are preferred when referring to dangling people from high places while hang, hung, and hung are the go-to words when referring to things. On the other hand, the past tense distinction between hanged and hung has become blurry so you will hear and read both used as if they are interchangeable.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible's Rachel, Always Older Than Her Years

With this post, I return to coming-of-age story lines in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and the character, Rachel, in particular. She may be the only character who remains the same from childhood to adulthood. Like Helen of Troy, she rides the waves of opportunity and finds that the only things beneath her are stepping stones to wealth and independence. Unexpectedly, she finds all that in Africa, a place she despises but never leaves.

When first we meet Rachel, she appears as an exact opposite of Leah. Rachel does not admire her father or her mother, but summons some sympathy for Orleanna when Nathan abuses her. To Rachel's credit, she never hesitates to pick up the domestic slack when Orleanna, depressed and overwhelmed, takes to her bed. Rachel can always do what must be done to survive.

Still, Rachel prefers slick magazines that feature celebrity gossip and fashion advice. She would like to paint her nails instead of care for a broken family because Rachel’s appearance is uppermost in her mind at all times. She has learned that she is beautiful, capable of attracting men even at a young age, and she uses men to fulfill her ambitions.

First is the disgusting Axelroot. He rescues Rachel from becoming one of many mates to the village chief, motivated to claim Rachel because of her milky white skin and platinum blonde hair. The chief also feels a duty to court Rachel. Kilangans believe that if a man has the means to support several wives, he should; need is always greater than supplies in Kilanga. Since Nathan cannot provide for all the women in his family, the chief will help until Axelroot pretends to be Rachel's fiancée. Later, as the family flees, scattering in different directions, Rachel takes her mirror, the most important object in her life, and climbs aboard Axelroot’s plane, landing in South Africa where she pretends to be Axelroot's wife while networking up and out of his clutches.

Second is a smitten ambassador who gives Rachel credibility and opportunity. She steps upon him and launches herself into a series of attachments that lead her to become the owner-operator of a fine hotel, carved into dense Africa, but Western in every way. Rachel dislikes the natives whom she must employ, and she dislikes the inconveniences of Africa, but neither deters her. With a steely will, she puts up barriers to prevent Africa's encroachment upon her oasis. She cultivates her body and her business because she understands that she can never go home again.

The girl who longed for the abundance and materialism of America no longer exists. That girl carries the scars of a fanatical father, a little sister struck dead by a green mamba, and a mother broken by her own regret. Rachel recognizes that she would be deemed odd because her story includes hunger and death and revolution. No one back home would understand. So she stays in Africa to create a paradise, but certainly not the one her father envisioned. She builds hers with manipulation, deceit, and desire, without the messy business of sin or shame.

Rachel observes that, “What happened to us in the Congo was simply the bad luck of two opposite worlds crashing into each other, causing tragedy. After something like that, you can only go your own way according to what’s in your heart. And in my family, all our hearts seem to have whole different things inside." In Rachel’s heart is a desire for beauty and the ability to overlook the ugliness in which she must engage in order to fulfill that desire.

Reading Challenge:

Pick up a copy of The Poisonwood Bible. Enjoy!

Writing Challenge:

The origin of Rachel is found in Hebrew, and the name means “ewe,” which, in Hebrew, carried connotations of purity. Consider the irony in giving such an impure character the name, Rachel. Consider also that Rachel may be the purest among her sisters in that she remains true to one goal all her days.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): The more you know, the less certain you become.

Way back in graduate school, a professor corrected my thesis while providing me with a mini-lecture about phrases such as “more important” and “more importantly.” I had used the adverb because that is what I often read and heard spoken. I just assumed the writers and speakers knew the correct form and imitated them. I never checked or even thought about it until that professor chastised me, explaining that the phrase modified an entire sentence, especially the subject of it so the adjective form was the only correct form to use.

Immediately, I changed my ways, but I confess, I just presumed that professor to be correct in spite of all the other writers and users. I wondered though--all these years, why so many users were content to be wrong. I still saw the adverb form in full, prominent use so I asked an online forum of grammarians and word lovers. They set me straight, and here’s the real deal: both forms are just fine.

So when in doubt, ask or turn to excellent resources such as online forums or You could even ask me. If I don’t know or if I’m not sure, I’ll check and get right back to you.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday the 13th: Hooray!

It’s Friday, the 13th of January, 2012, the 104th post, an anniversary for this blog, begun two years ago because I simply wasn’t done teaching and coaching writers, because I wished to extend my love of words beyond the classroom. So in honor of this milestone, I wish to return to the beginning: why you should write and more to the point, why I write.

First and most significant, write to know. I never really know what I think until I try to express it, and writing is the best way to do so.

After every kind of performance--blues, Broadway and far-off Broadway shows, movies, art exhibits, TV programs, and lectures--my husband asks, “Well, what did you think?” And I begin to try to sum up all that I thought and experienced. He, of course, responds with his point of view, and together we chat, sometimes on and off for days. I love these discussions, especially the ones that range from topic to topic as we drive hours from place to place until we seem to talk ourselves out and turn on NPR or an audiobook. He’s a thoughtful man, one who continues to surprise and teach me. I think that’s one reason we’ve endured for 30 years.

Still, in all those words, I have not given shape to and defined a formal, summary opinion because that is the nature of conversation: it is fluid. Like a stream, it runs onward, bumping against obstacles in understanding, sliding over hindrances and differences, changing directions with the terrain. Sometimes circumstances dam the flow altogether.

Writing, however, forces the writer to account for all obstacles, hindrances, and differences. In writing, we strive for verisimilitude (having the quality of realism, truth). We labor to be reasonable, persuasive, and logical. We search for apt evidence that will illustrate and enhance our position, and although we lack the immediate audience that conversation provides, we must think as our audience will in order to be exact and clear. In other words, writing demands that we know precisely what it is we think and believe in order to commuicate our thoughts and beliefs effectively.

Thus, writing requires that the writer pin himself to the truth. He must know, and writing helps him accomplish the telling of his truth economically and efficiently.

Second, writing helps me and countless others discover and uncover.

As I write about anything and everything, I make connections to my own experiences, to insights I’ve read, and to information I’ve gathered from others. In other words, while writing about the childhood of a character, I recognize my own verisimilitude in that character’s experience and most likely, I bring a memory to life. Now I have subjects for writing or another angle on an action I wish to describe.

Furthermore, writing shapes my attitudes. If I have made it to the end of a lousy day, one fraught with stress and unexpected nuisances, I may find my teeth clenched, my stomach juices sour. If I pause to reflect and write in my gratitude journal, I find that the day redefines itself, and I awake to a new day with hope. Similarly, I can list, in a diary entry perhaps, all the blows that flesh is heir to (Hamlet, Shakespeare), and if I do, I awake to a day full of storm and turmoil.

So writing helps me remember, and it helps me face what comes, including the fact that this posts on Friday, the 13th, a day that many dread. I choose to remember, however, that the Vikings thought the 13th man completed their efforts and brought luck to their efforts. This is what I know about this post then: only good fortune can follow.

Reading Challenge:

Read Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton wherein you will read about the 13th warrior (also the title of the film made from Crichton’s book).

Writing Challenge:

Write every day.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The number thirteen (13) written as a number in the post above should be written as a word: thirteenth. The number 104th should be written as a number, and the year, 2012, should also be written as a number. Here’s the guideline: if a number can be written in one or two words, then use words for the number, but always use numbers for the year.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible: Leah's Coming-of-Age Story

Orleanna’s story is a bildungsroman; her daughter Leah's is a coming-of-age tale like Noah Zarc, Christine, and Super 8. Leah metamorphoses from a daughter devoted to her father into a woman devoted to family and community.

As a girl, Leah longs to walk in her father’s shadow. She accompanies him while he makes a garden in Africa, using the techniques he learned while growing up in Georgia. He lectures Leah as he digs and sows, defying a village woman when she shows him a better way to grow plants in Africa. He believes himself superior in all ways because he is the self-appointed messenger of a Christian God. When the insidious Africa rains wash away his seeds, the rows in which they rested, and every trace of his garden, Nathan abandons his efforts to tend to his garden in spite of God’s command that every man after Adam do so. Nathan’s proud knees will not bend even when another way shows itself.

Seeing her father, Nathan, grow increasingly bitter, abusive and neglectful, Leah turns to other mentors, including the village teacher and translator, Anatole, and Nelson, a boy who works for the Price family in exchange for a place to sleep. From them, Leah learns about Africa and African ways. Nelson, for example, shows her many survival skills. More important perhaps, he shows her that African children do not enjoy a childhood as American children do. From early ages, African children climb trees to retrieve foods, they hunt, and they labor. Leah observes that all Africans, adults and children, tend to the garden that is Africa. They abide when the bounty is slight; they give when the bounty is good.

Anatole gives expression to the lessons that Leah experiences in the company of Nathan. He explains want and need, informing Leah that people have little imagination for independence and after-life rewards when basic human survival is at stake. Through him, Leah begins to admire African stoicism, and she begins to fall in love with Anatole who is supportive, understanding, and intellectual. He loves his country and countrymen; he opposes Western interference and abuse, and he is willing to strive for independence and African self-sufficiency even if doing so puts him in danger.

As Leah bears witness to her father’s Christianity, she begins to appreciate the pantheistic, pragmatic Africans. She realizes that her father’s version of Christianity is severe, judgmental, and arrogant. Nathan Price is a cruel shepherd while Brother Fowles, a Catholic missionary, is a gentle shepherd who welcomes pantheists and Christians into the same fold. Ultimately, Leah abandons both the Christian church and the U.S., preferring the stark necessity of Africa to the wasteful abundance at home. She defies the racial divide and marries Anatole. Together, they make a garden, welcoming refugees who flee the chaos and revolution created by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a death sanctioned and ordered by the U. S. The man installed in Lumumba’s place is a cruel dictator, and thus, basic survival once again is the most important need among Africans.

Leah grows from a naïve girl who adores her father and accepts his pronouncements without question into a thoughtful, hard-working woman and mother who teachers her children the fine art of good deeds and empathy instead of the imminent danger of Hell. She comes of age wiser and kinder than the man who gave her life.

Reading Challenge:

As I said last week, read The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, both by Barbara Kingsolver.  In each, you will find complex, sympathetic female protagonists in novels of the bildungsroman type.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate the events that sowed seeds of doubt in your mind about your family’s faith, politics, or homeland. Be sure to develop your essay or story to the point of resolution. Did you change? If so, how. Did you reassert the family faith, those politics, your patriotism? If so, why?

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Although I have taken up this matter once before (on November 5, 2010), I should review the use of foreign words because bildungsroman does not roll off the tongues of most English speakers and is not a word often seen in print unless one happens to be a literary geek. So from November 5, 2010:

Several years ago, one of my students shared the following with me: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar” (James D. Nicoll). We enjoyed laughing about the fact that the English vocabulary has grown because English-speakers freely borrow words and phrases from other languages, phrases such as femme fatale [or words such as bildungsroman, both presented with an italicized font because:] If at least one of the words is unfamiliar to English speakers, then italicize both words so the reader will not puzzle over them and will quickly recognize them as being from another language, ....

Technically, writers do not need to italicize the phrase more than once, only the first time it's used.  I elected not to do this because the blogs teach a term, offering both definition and examples. Thus, italics helped me emphasize the term as I explained it, and emphasis is one of the chief uses of italics.

Many foreign words are well-known to English readers. Femme fatale and blasé are but two examples of words stolen in French alleys to bring into the bright, light of common English day. Neither one must be italicized today, but again, to emphasize a term being explained, an italic font is appropriate.

The German word, weltanschauung [or bildungsroman], on the other hand, is less familiar to English speakers and readers. An italicized font would be useful, but italics are not even required for weltanschauung because it has a place in the dictionary among other English words and phrases.

So if the word is uncommon and foreign, italicize it. If the word, though uncommon and foreign, is in the dictionary, you may omit the italicized font. If you wish to emphasize the word or phrase, foreign or not, italicize it.