Summary and Analysis
Book 4 - Bel and the Serpent
Still haunted by her experiences in Africa, Orleanna imagines the political meetings that led to Lumumba's demise and Joseph Mobutu's installation as leader of the Congo nation. According to a U.S. Senate investigative committee in 1975, the United States government, including Eisenhower and the National Security Council, suggested the coup and offered to pay for it. As a result, Lumumba was arrested and Mobutu was put in charge of the army. Lumumba escaped but was recaptured and beaten to death, leaving the Congo under the despotic rule of Mobutu.
After the episode with the ants, the villagers return to Kilanga to find all of their food supplies eaten. The drought continues, causing water to dry up and plants to die. The people long for rain and are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of Jesus. At church one Sunday as Nathan is giving a sermon, Tata Ndu interrupts and announces that the village will hold elections right there regarding whether or not the Kilangans will choose Jesus as the village's personal God. Despite Nathan's outrage, the vote takes place, and Jesus loses, 11 to 56.
Soon after the vote in the church, Tata Ndu announces that the entire village will participate in a large hunt. Leah, who has been honing her hunting skills, wants to join the men in hunting. Her request is met with disapproval from Tata Ndu, Tata Kuvudundu, and the other old men. Anatole argues for Leah and for the need to embrace change, and many of the young people agree with him. The village votes on the matter, with the vote 51 to 45 in favor of letting Leah hunt. Tata Kuvudundu speaks out against the decision, stating that the animals will rebel against such unnatural behavior. After the meeting, Nathan and Leah get into a fight over her desire to hunt. Nathan forbids it, and Leah defies him. Later, Anatole finds a mamba snake in his bed and is lucky he isn't killed.
On the morning of the hunt, the villagers beat down the tall grass on a hill. They then set the grass on fire. Encircling the hill they follow behind the flames as they move forward. The women and children pick up basketfuls of charred caterpillars left in the fire's wake. The circle of fire grows smaller, trapping all of the wildlife that was in the area inside. The trapped animals begin trying to leap through the fire to escape, and as they try to escape, the hunters shoot at them. Leah kills her first game — an antelope. However when she goes to claim it, Gbenye, the chief's son, claims that his arrow killed it. Nelson proves that Leah killed it and ridicules Gbenye's aim. The whole village begins arguing over who killed the antelope, and Tata Ndu insults Leah by hacking off the rear leg of the animal and throwing it at her feet. She responds by throwing it at Gbenye's back. The evening ends in chaos.
Back home after the hunt is over, the Prices cook and eat their antelope leg. Nelson comes in and reports that he has seen an evil sign outside the chicken house. Nathan tells him that he's being superstitious and refuses to let Nelson sleep in the house with them. As the Prices try to sleep, Nelson disturbs them with his pleas to be allowed inside. Finally, Leah gets up and with her sisters goes outside to help Nelson. They sprinkle ashes on the ground inside and outside the chicken house to catch anyone who may try to harm Nelson, and Nelson sleeps at Anatole's that night.
The next morning, Nelson and the girls go out to examine the ashes. In the ashes the see the footprints of Tata Kuvudundu, who has six toes on one of his feet. Inside the chicken house, they find a green mamba snake. As the snake darts out of the chicken house, it strikes twice at a pole Nelson has shoved at it. They hear a cry and look up at the treetops where they think the noise has come from. Then they look at Ruth May and see that she is turning blue. Tearing her shirt off, they see that the snake has bitten her right above the heart. Before they can run for help, she dies.
The girls tell Orleanna what has happened. Moving as if in a daze, she bathes Ruth May and sews a shroud for her. She then moves the dining table into the front yard and places Ruth May's body in the shroud on the table. The women from the village come and drop to their knees and shriek, beginning the mourning ritual for the death of a child. Not knowing what to do, Leah and Adah kneel there with them and pray. Orleanna begins moving all of their furniture and possessions into the yard. When she is done, she begins giving the things to the women. The women leave with their new things, but the village children come back to circle the yard. It begins to rain, and Nathan emerges and takes the opportunity to baptize the children in the rain. The children don't understand what he is doing; instead, they begin calling out "Mother may I?" to Ruth May's body.
In this section, we finally reach the crisis that has been hinted at since the beginning of the book: Ruth May's death. Preceding her death are a series of events marking the collapse of different institutions. First, the village votes to end Nathan's ministry, signifying his complete failure to bring Christianity into their lives. Then the village votes to allow Leah to hunt, a decision that goes against the village leaders and Kilangan traditions, causing disruptions in both the community's power structure and its cultural beliefs. The disruption is complete when Leah actually bests the chief's son in shooting the antelope. A woman has beaten a man. The hunt, which should have been a celebratory event, disintegrates into anarchy. With that in mind, it becomes clear why Tata Kuvudundu placed the snake in the chicken house. He was trying to reestablish order in his community by removing the troublemakers, Anatole and Nelson. His attempt to regain stability, however, only caused more destruction. With Ruth May's death, the Price family is shattered, sending the remaining Price women out to make their own way in the world and leaving Nathan behind with nothing.
Reading this section in terms of the political allegory, it is important to recognize that Ruth May died on the same day that Patrice Lumumba was murdered — January 17, 1961. Just as Ruth May was the spirit of the Price family, Lumumba was the spirit of the independence movement. With his death, the future of the Congo was bleak. However, a close reading of Ruth May's death shows that there is hope, not only for the Price women, but also for the Congo. When Ruth May is bitten, her sisters hear a cry that seems to come from the treetops. Remembering that Ruth May had chosen the treetops as the safe spot for her spirit to go to if death was near, we can believe that Ruth May's spirit escaped. If Ruth May's spirit escaped, then perhaps Lumumba's did as well. With those spirits free, healing might be possible.