Recently, I’ve been “rereading” The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (as I’ve mentioned before, this means listening to it on audiobook while I go about my daily activities) and was struck by the way it explores disability-related issues.
The story is told by the wife (Orleanna) and four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister who takes his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Adah has “hemiplegia” – which she explains breaks into “Hemi – is half, hemisphere, hemmed-in, hemlock, hem and haw. Plegia is the cessation of motion” (34). So it is, she says, that her “right side drags. [She] was born with half [her] brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap” (33). While she and her family describe her as working with half her body, as well as half her brain, it is clear throughout the book, that she has extreme insight and intelligence. Aware of this fact, she closes her first chapter of the book by writing, “It is true that I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell” (34).
But once Adah and her family arrive in the Congo, the Congolese stare at all of them, particularly Rachel, who is nicknamed the “white rabbit” because she is so extremely blonde and pale, or “mvula” – the Congolese word for termite (52). Six-year-old Ruth May writes, “Adah was the only one of us in our family with something wrong with her. But here nobody stares at Adah except just a little because she’s white. Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out… they’ll wave a stump at you if they’ve got one, in a friendly way” (53). In an interesting paradigm shift, it isn’t physical “abnormality” that sets any one member of the Price family apart, but the whiteness of their skin that “otherizes” them all.
The way that disability is described as an accepted part of the human experience in Kilanga is striking. The varying body types and physical attributes aren’t even considered on a spectrum of disability/ability; instead, diverse body types are simply accepted. When Nathan remarks to Orleanna that the body should be treated as a temple, she responds by saying, “Why, Nathan, here they have to use their body like we use things at home—like your clothes or your garden tools or something. Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just have to go ahead and wear out their knees!” (51). And so it is, that the people of Kilanga all seem to have varying types of bodies for one reason or another. Mama Mwanza, the closest neighbor of the Price’s became a double amputee after her house caught fire and part of her roof fell on her legs. But, as Ruth May writes, “she goes right on tending after her husband and seven or eight children. They don’t care one bit about her not having any legs to speak of. To them she’s just their mama and where’s dinner? To all the other Congo people, too. Why, they just don’t let on, like she was a regular person. Nobody bats their eye when she scoots by on her hands and goes on down to her field or the river to wash clothes with the other ladies” (52).
I appreciate the way Mama Mwanza’s physical difference is described in sincerity by Ruth May and the way that the Congolese in the story do not take particular heed to the way that Mama Mwanze (or numerous other members of the village) is physically diverse. Indeed, not only is Mama Mwanza a steady character throughout the book, but she takes special care of the Price family in several instances, such as by secretly putting eggs under their chickens so they do not starve and showing them which plants are dangerous. Her character is written in a way that does not evoke feelings of sympathy and she and her family are not portrayed as charity cases. Also, she is not shown as “the brave victim” or as a “supercrip” who valiantly overcomes or overcompensates for her condition. Instead, she is depicted as all of the other Congolese people are: trying as best they can to get along and sharing/caring for those who are less fortunate (which, at times, means the Price family).
But then the issue of disability gets more complicated. Jump ahead about 400 pages and Orleanna and Adah are back in the United States. Adah is attending medical school at Emory and has befriended an “upstart neurologist” who insists that “there should have been complete compensation in the undamaged part of [her] cerebral cortex, and that [her] dragging right side is merely holding on to a habit it learned in infancy” (439). Adah is thus convinced to clear her “nervous pathways of so-called bad habits” and stops walking entirely for six months in order to do so (439). While skeptical at first, Adah soon feels “the snap like a rubber band that drew [her] right leg up under [her] as [her] left arm moved forward” (440). After many years apart, Rachel and Adah meet in person and Rachel is amazed how Adah “has truly had a miracle recovery” (476).
So, what gives? How does this incredible paradigm shift occur both in Adah and the book as a whole? We go from valuing human diversity to “fixing” it through the American medical institution? It’s proven that the only thing “wrong” with Adah is that she developed some “bad habits” as a child and never grew out of them? What a let down. In all honesty, I’m still completely shocked at the turn of events in the last portion of the story and can’t quite reconcile them with the ways that disability was originally introduced. I know I’m really asking more questions here than I’m providing answers for. I’m going to keep thinking about it, because right now, I feel like I’m missing the “bigger picture” for why the book and Kingsolver are editing the way that physical diversity is portrayed.
Citation: Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.