The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible Summary and Analysis of Chapters 72-79

The narrative advances to 1981 and Anatole has been put in prison, perhaps, as Leah laments, "for the last time." She recounts their visits back to America, the first when they were both students at Emory University, the second with just her and the children, and the third with the entire family. It was the third, when coming back, that the government took Anatole's passport and then showed up at their house the next day to arrest him. Though no formal charges have been made, the prospect is that Anatole will spend the rest of his life in prison unless bribes can be made to reduce his sentence and get him food. Leah discovers that now her life is challenged even more by the color of her skin. Without Anatole to justify her living here, the people of Zaire deal with her suspiciously, because they only know "one thing" about white people: namely all the havoc they've wreaked on their country.

Three more years pass with Anatole in prison, but Leah soon learns that he is to be let out. In order to cope with the last month before he's released, she organizes a reunion for her and her sisters. Adah comes over with a Land Rover so that Leah and Anatole can move to Angola and start a farm commune, and Rachel comes over to tour West Africa with them. Their reunion is not as happy as Rachel hopes, and they spend much of the time fighting over their different views of the political and economic situation in Africa: Rachel is convinced that the Reagan administration is going to protect Africa from Communism, while Leah and Adah argue that democracy has done more to wreck the land than Communism ever has. On a tour of an ancient village where they learn of ritual sacrifices, Leah tells her sisters of news she heard that their father had died. She tells them that he had moved north to a village where he lived in seclusion and hiding, trying to baptize the children of the village. The villagers grew superstitious of him and believed he could turn into a crocodile, and so when a boat full of children is killed or drowned by a crocodile, the villagers hunt him down and burn him alive, letting the animals devour his body. Adah marvels that his fate mirrors the last verse of the Apocrypha, a Verse she had been forced to write out many times as punishment. Leah and Rachel argue that they simply cannot understand African culture and should be ashamed that they believed they could force another system of belief and practice on another people. In a restaurant, they drink beer and toast their dead father, saying "Tata Jesus is bangala" - meaning, Tata Jesus is poisonwood.

When Adah return to Atlanta she tells her mother of their father's death. Orleanna, in typical fashion, doesn't respond but simply moves outdoors to the garden where she violently plants some flowers. Adah confesses to her that she thought their father was a despicable man and that they should be allowed to remember the scars, physical and emotional, that were inflicted upon them. For Adah, there is still the crooked little girl inside her, always trying to "call a spade a spade."

The narrative moves to 1986 and Leah recalls the birth of her fourth child, Nathaniel. She gives birth to the baby on the side of a road when labor comes upon her unexpectedly. The baby is very sick and it takes a week of constant care and nursing before he will even eat. During the week, Leah imagines that she goes mad, speaking to anything she can to keep her baby alive - and she has a vision of her mother, praying to whatever god will listen, to keep Ruth May alive when she stopped taking her malaria pills. But the baby does survive and the Ngembes continue their life. They have moved to a small commune just ten miles from the border with Angola. Anatole has received several offers of employment within the new government of Angola, though he has been unable to accept thus far. Leah worries because America sees Angola as a communist threat, and begins shipping arms to war lords with the hope of taking down the threat. To Leah, however, she cannot understand how communism can be such a threat. She remembers the words of her father - "they do not fear the Lord, and they think everybody should have the same kind of house." After living for so many years in abject poverty and watching all those around her die from disease and war, she has a hard time seeing anything wrong with that vision of the world. For Leah and Anatole, their vision is simply to not give up on Africa.

The closing chapters of the book contain the reflections of the three living Price daughters. Rachel, now fifty years old, is still managing The Equatorial. She reflects on why it was that she never left the Congo. Mainly, she surmises, it was because she feared she'd never be able to fit back into American culture. She regrets the "easy living" that she doesn't have and not ever being able to have children, but she is proud for being able to keep her looks and credits her success in Africa to her ability to avoid calamity. She understand now that her father's failure in Africa was in thinking that he could change the entire continent without realizing that the continent would change him right back. This is what Rachel realizes always happens. Her advice: "Let others do the pushing and shoving, and you just ride along. In the end, the neck you save will be your own."

Nathaniel, Leah's youngest son, is now ten years old and Leah and Anatole are now living out their days on a small commune in Angola. They farm the land as best they can and take in refugees every dry season after the roads open back up from the rains. At night, Anatole tells her stories of what might have been had the Portugeuse not come and conquered this land. He reconstructs society as it was and would have always been: men and women would have lived off the land. There would have been no batteries or ferries - if a river was the be crossed, they would have built a bridge, and if a river was too wide to build a bridge, that river was not to be crossed. Leah regrets that the Europeans ever came and crossed any rivers. Now, Africa lives with the enslavement of its people to European systems of commerce and tyranny, and when that had not worked in the past, the Europeans had simply shipped the people off to be slaves somewhere. Within this system she locates her father's own sins; thinking he could come to Africa, like a million other white men, and change everything. Leah laments that if she could give her father just one gift it would be "the simply human relief of knowing you've done wrong, and living through it." Nathaniel Price, however, did not live through it.

Adah eventually leaves the practice of medicine and focuses her interest on tracking African viruses. She has a real love for these viruses, the way they change or grow, and she comes to see them as her children in a way. Once a month she returns to Georgia to visit her mother, who is growing old but survives despite the chronic disease she still carries in her body from the time she spent in Africa. Adah has an acute appreciation for nature and the way it works itself out. She is not as concerned with a cure for viruses as she is in seeing how they interact and compete with the human and animal population. Her colleagues call her cynical, but she simply sees it as a way of carrying history and nature forward. Though she is no longer crooked in the way she was as a child, she cannot help but still be that old Adah, who knew the true cruelty of the world.

The closing chapter is the only chapter of the book that opens without a clear narrator, though by the end of the chapter we know that it is Ruth May, looking down upon her mother and sisters from an eternal viewpoint. She first sees her mother and sisters as they walk along a path to a swimming hole, the same scene that opened the book when it was told from the perspective of Orleanna Price. But Ruth May's sense of things is different - she sees herself kill a spider on the path and then sees the mythical okapi who they scare away. But Ruth May knows that their presence there saved the okapi's life for another year, just as it killed the spider. Ruth May's view of the world is larger in death. She then sees her mother and sisters many, many years later. Her mother is old and her sisters are grown up and they have ventured back to the Congo to put a gravestone on Ruth May's burial place. However, they cannot enter the Congo because of the war raging there and Mobutu's impending death. Instead they wander the streets of an Angolan town and barter for goods in the market. They ask about Kilanga, but a woman says that that town doesn't exist anymore. As the book ends, the omnipotent voice of Ruth May urges her mother to forgive herself.


Kingsolver seems to bring the novel to a close by extrapolating her themes to the global problem of race. Whiteness, which has characteristically meant purity, goodness, or wholeness in literary mythology, here becomes a symbol of distrust and broken promises. Kingsolver thus reveals how such a symbol can mean different things within different contexts. This attempt to revise and repoisiotn goes to the larger purpose of the novel as a revisionist 'Bible' - an attempt to reform the templates of perception which dictate the foundations for our stories, our relationships, our world.

Anatole is put back in prison, though released a few years later, and though Leah has doubts about staying in Africa, she does nevertheless. Her mind increasingly turns towards alternative forms of government and economics, such as communism, as a boon to the Africa economy. She and Anatole continue to work to overthrow the government of Mobutu, thought they now can only do it quietly and on a small communal farm not far from the Angolan border. Mobutu's violence has silenced them, though they continue to struggle for their own freedom and the freedom of Africa. As Leah's narrative closes, the reader sees that she is still the same person as the one at the outset of the narrative; stil stubborn and independent enough to lead her to continue to fight for Africa in the face of overwhelming odds. Leah represents a kind of femininity that challenges the accepted roles of women. Like the continent of Africa, she is both abused by those who oppress her, but also capable of an inner fortitude that revives her hope for the future.

The death of Nathan Price upends the biblical prophetic narrative. While, in the Bible, prophets are villainized by the people they preach to, they are redeemed by the truth of their prophecies. Revered Price, however, takes on the role of the prophet - a roaming mad man predicting doom unless the people of Africa repent - whose work will not be redeemed. Instead, his body is literally eaten by the land. His legacy will be complex, however, as the stories about him still travel from village to village. It is the irony of the story that his lack of understanding of the people and the land means that his religion is ultimately reduced to 'poisonwood.' His misguided intentions, characterized by his misuse of the language, meant that his religion and his politics could never be translated into something good.

Rachel is haunted by her time in Africa and though she still exhibits her penchant for money grubbing and selfishness, it is tempered by her realization that she is also a part of this continent, though she falls on the side of the conquerer more than the conquered. In the closing chapter Ruth May comments that Rachel still holds her purse close to her chest, but one can certainly find sympathy in her inability to leave Africa and the way that the culture and customs have ingrained themselves into her. Rachel's hotel symbolizes this conflict in her. The name of the hotel, "The Equatorial," symbolizes her divided nature. Part of her will always be American - the materialism, the extravagance, the luxury of her life. But part of her now will always be African as well. As Leah symbolizes a femininity that transcends the roles placed upon women, Rachel represents the inability of women to completely leave behind the culture that has shaped the gender role.

Adah remains the most distant of all three children, though she reamins closest to their mother - and her duty as the youngest child after Ruth May's death. Her sense of nature drives her to study viruses and microbes, the smallest and deadliest things on earth, and she marvels at the evolutionary progression of both humans and these microscopic beings and their fight with each other to survive. Though her view of humanity is dim, she still sees wonder in the ways of the world. Adah continually fights with the memory of her old self, the crooked Adah who created palindromes and felt betrayed by the world. Her new take on the world is not one of betrayal, so much, as one of reality. Her own fight with nature led her to study nature, and her survival only increases her appreciation for the ways in which the smallest and most vulnerable things in the world choose to survive. Adah's character has, perhaps, made the most dramatic character arc in the book. As the symbol of agnosticism, moving to atheism, she now comes to embrace a new kind of hope for divinity in the world. It is a divinity much like that of Brother Fowles, but one still grounded in science and reason. Much like some strains of modern science, she begins to see the possibility of the miracle of creation in the design of creation. Thus, she represents the possibility in religion for good in the world.

This possibility in creation is also represented by the closing chapter, narrated by Ruth May's eternal spirit. Like Brother Fowles pantheism, Kingsolver asserts that there is a circular nature to life. The trajectory of hope that arcs to grief ultimately ends with Ruth May imploring her mother to forgive herself. Kingsolver suggests that this is a necessary step in this circle of life - that grief cannot ebb, that hope cannot renew, until forgivenss provides cathartic absolution.