The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 5:part 4
Summary: Circa 1996, now living in Angola on an agricultural station near Sanza Pombo, Anataole and Leah lie in bed, where Anatole tells her “the history of the world”—an Afro-centric history. Leah still lives with her malaria held in check by quinine, but she knows her disease will always be with her. She continues to teach nutrition and sanitation courses, hoping to redress some of the injustices that westerners such as her father have perpetrated upon Africa over the generations. She draws hope in the belief that “time erases whiteness altogether.”
Analysis: In stark contrast to her sister, who acknowledges “the jungle’s” powerful potential to change outsiders but who stubbornly has refused to allow herself to be changed, Leah is well aware of and welcomes the changes that have been wrought within her during her life in Africa. “I wake up in love, and work my skin to darkness under the equatorial sun. I look at my four boys… and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether” (p. 526). Rachel lives in a hotel named The Equatorial; Leah, however, actually lives in equatorial Africa, not separated from it or its people by opulent Western walls. The history of the world that Anatole tells her as they lie in bed in some ways answers the globe of the world that Leah made for Anatole so long ago: whereas she was then presenting him with a scientifically accurate but nonetheless Western-centric view of the world, Anatole has given her, through their marriage and life together, a new view of the world, “the Kingdom of Kongo” (p. 521), a vision of Africa untamed, undomesticated by foreign oppressors, with thousand-year old trees in “a forest that has never been cut down” (p. 521). This new view of the world gives Leah some sense that, for all the wrongs human beings perpetrate against each other, there is no justice, but there is balance: “Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace” (p. 522)—the grace that Leah exhibits as one who has become a part of Africa. She reports that when she and Anatole arrived in Angola, she was stuck “by a sense of childhood returned” (p. 523); and it is as though she has been given her youth in Kilanga to relive again, this time, as one of the people and in harmony with the land from the beginning. Leah has achieved a proper perspective on the circumstances that brought her family to Africa, and she is able to come to peace—or, perhaps, at least that sense of balance of which she speaks: “If I could reach backward somehow to give Father just one gift, it would be the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong, and living through it” (p. 525). Such is precisely what Leah has done.
Adah Price, Atlanta
Summary: A doctor specializing in virology, Adah reflects on the irony of receiving praise for the breakthroughs she makes in treating such viruses as AIDS and Ebola, when she is actually an admirer of them for the elegant way they bring balance to life. She realizes she may sound cruel—even Orleanna accuses her of having “no heart for her own kind”—but her outlook has been profoundly shaped by having seen a world in which (in contrast to the privileged West) continued life is not always an unmitigated good. She expresses frustration with the neurologist who set on her on her path to wholeness, because she now sees he did so from self-centered motives. He becomes for Adah a metaphor of the history of Western involvement in Africa.
Analysis: Adah’s final chapter (and the penultimate one of the novel as a whole) preserves her unique outlook, her unique “slant,” on the world. It is a perspective she knows carries the risk of being misunderstood, but she steadfastly clings to it and lives in light of it: “Mother says I have no heart for my own kind. She doesn’t know I have too much. I know what we have done, and what we deserve” (p. 531). The “we” to which Adah refers is, on one level, Westerners. Her sympathy for Africa leads her to lament, “Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill” (p. 528). The history of the West’s involvement/interference in Africa, a good part of which Adah witnessed firsthand (in her own inimitable fashion), lays bare the reality that “[i]llusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization” (p. 532)—even when their results are far from civilized. Adah now realizes that she built her early life on a misunderstanding (her feeling of being betrayed by Leah), and that realization enables her to see that the West has fundamentally misunderstood the rest of the world, particularly Africa. “Africa,” Adah now knows, “has a thousand ways of cleansing itself,” from driver ants to deadly viruses (p. 529). Perhaps, Adah’s perspective dares to suggest, such cleansing is, in the largest possible picture, good and worthy of preservation—as opposed to preserving human life at all possible costs. Lest she be misunderstood, Adah hastens to assure us that in a wealthy nation such as the United States, “where we sit among such piles of leftover protein we press it into cakes for the pets” (p. 527)—Adah’s talent for the rapier-sharp remark has not diminished over the years, even if she does no longer walk crooked!—“yes, for a child to die from hunger is immoral. But this is just one place. I’m afraid I have seen a world” (p. 527). Her “confession,” then, is perhaps the culmination of the novel’s insistence on the theme of vision and sight. Adah sees the world correctly, where others (i.e., “we,” most Westerners) do not, either by incapacity or by unwillingness. Like the neurosurgeon who was only romantically interested in Adah when she was “whole,” the West has only been interested in remaking Africa over into its own image, rather than (the fundamental problem seen in the novel, from Nathan’s garden onward) accepting Africa on its own, undomesticated terms. Adah makes the novel’s second reference to Albert Schweitzer, saying that “bless his heart” “he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young” (p. 528). But his missionary zeal subverted the natural order, the natural balance, Africa had achieved. Now, “we”—in this sense, all of humanity—are paying the price. “In he world, the carrying capacity for humans is limited” (p. 527). Humanity is, Adah sees, but one part of the world’s life: “God is not just rooting for the dollies” he placed in Eden at Creation (p. 529). Readers may still be left with questions regarding Adah’s perspective (indeed, a straightforward perspective would be unworthy of such a complex character!)—for example, what is the moral responsibility, if any, of the privileged West in its dealings with Africa? To simply leave it alone? Would this not, in its own way, be a betrayal, as was Cain’s, of a moral imperative to be our brothers’ keeper? Does such an imperative even exist?—but we are left with a satisfying conclusion to Adah’s journey nonetheless.
BOOK SEVEN: THE EYES IN THE TREES
Unlike the other “books” of Kingsolver’s novel, this brief epilogue bears neither the title of a biblical book nor an epigram; it simply and swiftly presents readers with an all-seeing perspective that somehow both is and is not Ruth May. The title of the chapter clearly refers to Ruth’s malarial visions of becoming a snake, high in the trees of Kilanga, observing life below; but the chapter’s narrative voice (a balancing counterweight to Orleanna’s voice as the novel began) can both refer to itself as Ruth May—e.g., it addresses Orleanna as “mother” in direct response to Orleanna’s address of the dead Ruth May in the novel’s first chapter: “Mother, be still listen. I can see you leading your children to the water, and you call it a story of ruin. Here is what I see” (p. 537)—but it is also clearly speaking for more than Ruth May: “I am muntu [that is, essential] Africa, muntu one child and a million all lost on the same day” (cf. Leah’s inability to mourn the many who died as a result of Lumumba’s assassination but her ability to mourn her own sister, who died the same day) (p. 537). The poles of this narrative voice thus stand in tension, but they are meant to do so, for the greater point, as so often in the novel, is perspective. “Listen,” the voice tells Orleanna, tells us: “being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger” (p. 538). This large view enables the narrator of the epilogue to see clearly how “[e]very life is different because you passed this way and touched history… Everyone is complicit” (p. 538). It allows the speaker to witness the death of Mobutu, in exile in Morocco (historically speaking, then, this epilogue could be placed on September 7, 1997, meaning Kingsolver’s novel spans 38 years of the 20th century). It also allows the speaker to watch Orleanna, Rachel, Leah and Adah reunite one last time in Africa—“They are all surprised to be here, surprised at themselves and each other…. They have come to say good-bye to Ruth May or so they claim” (p. 539)—and to witness Orleanna’s death. As Orleanna dies, the speaker absolves her, beckoning her to move forward “into the light” (p. 543)—perhaps of an afterlife, but, more likely, a light of resolution and peace, a light by which all things are, finally, seen clearly and correctly.