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 fiancĂ©e. 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.