“The Poisonwood Bible” is a novel written by Barbara Kingsolver and published in 1998. The book was an immediate success and was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that same year and in the year 2000 won the South African Boeke Prize.
The novel tells the story of the five women of the Price family and each new chapter is told from one of their unique perspectives. Orleanna, the mother of the family speaks from a future years down the line and opens the novel by saying that she is telling the story as a way of asking for forgiveness from her daughter who has passed away.
We are then taken back to 1959 where the family is led deep into the African jungles of the Congo on a mission trip lead by their Reverend father, Orleanna’s husband Nathan. Nathan is a devout Baptist Christian who intends to baptize and preach the gospel to the people of the remote village of Kilanga. The story is told through the eyes of Orleanna and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Nathan insists on baptizing the children of the village which alienates the villagers. As the political situation in the country begins to heat up, Orleanna realizes that she wishes to get her daughters out of the dangerous country but her husband will not let her.
One day, the youngest daughter Ruth May is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies instantly. Orleanna is so distraught that she simply walks out of the village with her daughters. On the road to the embassy, the girls are split up by sickness and only Orleanna and Adah manage to make it back to the US. Both Rachel and Leah begins romances with local men. Leah marries her boyfriend and the two live a long and happy life together. Rachel manages to marry three times before a husband leaves her a luxury hotel and she settles there. Adah becomes a doctor in the US and lives with their mother.
At the end of the book, Ruth May’s ethereal voice tells us that she forgives her mother and wishes that her mother would forgive herself.
The novel is told through the eyes of the female members of the Price family. The first narrator, Orleanna Price, introduces herself as a “Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead”. Orleanna has four daughters named, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. All of the girls also narrate chapters in the book but while their perspectives come from the present tense, Orleanna narrates from a vague time in the future after the events of the book have already taken place.
Orleanna begins by asking the reader to picture a woman and her four daughters in the jungles of Congo where the father of the family has brought them on a mission trip to preach Baptist ideals to the African people. Orleanna tells us that she is addressing this narrative to one of her four daughters that did not come out of the Congo alive. He says that telling this story is her way of asking for forgiveness from this daughter.
Book One: The Things We Carried
At this point the narrative transfers to Leah Price the second oldest daughter of the Price family. Leah begins her story in 1959 and begins her part by narrating all of the things that the Price family carried with them to the Congo. The family hides such items as thimbles, scissors, Band-Aids, hand mirrors and Betty Crocker cake mixes in their clothing in order to navigate around the airline’s baggage weight limit and still bring everything they can’t imagine living without on their trip. Leah begins seeing these items as a burden on her body and her mind, weighing her down and making her uncomfortable. But Leah is the most optimistic about the journey. She is the daughter that most unquestioningly upholds their father’s Baptist views and she truly believes that they are going to be doing good by bringing the Lord’s enlightenment to the natives.
When they get to the airport, the family is met by two Belgian missionaries. Reverend and Mrs. Underdown. The Underdown’s tells the Prices that they will be the only Westerners present in the village that they are going to. The village, Kilanga was once a thriving mission location but this has since died down. The Prices are put on a smaller plane to get to the village that is piloted by a man called Eeben Axelroot. When they reach the village the whole population is waiting to greet them.
The youngest member of the Price family, Ruth May is only five years old at the time of the trip. Ruth May’s first perspective chapter tells us mostly about her preconceptions about the people of the Congo. Ruth May says that she know that black people are descended from Noah’s youngest son, Ham. Ruth May says that Ham was a bad son and that she is also bad sometimes. Ham once laughed at his father when Noah was drunk and naked and because of this Ham was cursed to have dark skin and live a life of slavery. Ruth May considers this logical and notes that back home in the families home state of Georgia, black people are separated from whites because of “Jimmy Crow” who makes the laws.
The oldest of the Price daughters, Rachel is fifteen years old and the most disgusted with the trip. She is repelled by the body odor of the Kilanga and is more horrified to see that the village’s church is merely a “dirt-floor patio with a roof over it”. Rachel shares none of the religious zeal that her father and sister Leah do, but is still offended when the villages light a large fire and begin singing Christian hymns. At first she cannot tell that they are the hymns that she knows so well, as the villagers keep the beat of the songs on drums and sing in their native language. But she grudgingly admits that they have as much right to sing them as anyone.
The girl’s father, Nathan begins delivering a sermon to the people in which he scolds the villagers for their nakedness. He assures that villagers that he can deliver them from the “darkness of the soul” to a place of light. The sermon goes on to terrify the villagers with more fire and brimstone style speaking although they had initially been very happy to hear the Reverend speak.
Adah is Leah’s twin sister. Because of a condition called hemiplegia, Adah is paralyzed on the left side of her body. She must drag her left side around when she walks with a limp. Because of this condition, she also chooses not to speak except when she must.
Adah is the first character to present the reader with an unbiased view of the village of Kilanga. She tells us that the villagers, although they often walk around nearly naked, are very modest in their own way. The women do not leave their yard without covering their legs and are shocked to see the Price women wearing pants. The Prices have no mail service and no contact with the world outside the village save the infrequent visits of Eeben Axelroot.
The Reverend begins trying to plant a “demonstration garden” using seeds that he has brought from home. The garden is intended to show the natives how to care for a garden and provide food for their families with simple agricultural escapades. Mama Tataba, the Price’s live-in maid watches skeptically as the Revered and Leah plant the garden. Mama Tataba was left to the Price’s from the last missionary that lived in the house, Brother Fowles.
Leah has overheard from her parents talking that Brother Fowles was an Irish Catholic priest who was taken from the Congo when he was found to be consorting inappropriately with the villagers. Brother Fowles also left behind a parrot named Methuselah.
Mama Tataba tries to instruct the Reverend how to properly plant in the harsh ground and warns him about getting to close to the Poisonwood tree in the yard. However, the Reverend does not listen and discovers that he has broken out in a rash the next morning. While looking over the garden that morning, Leah notices that Mama Tataba has replanted it. The Reverend insists on planting it over again and leveling the ground where Mama Tataba has created long mounds.
Revered Price begins trying to convince the men of the town to be baptized in the river by the church. Although it is the middle of summer, the men are willing to attend an Easter celebration at the church but not to be baptized. Revered Price decides to throw a picnic by the river. Most of the people in the village attend as they are drawn in by the promise of food. Orleanna kills almost all of the chickens left in the house by Brother Fowles and spends the day frying them, hoping that the picnic will encourage more attendance to the church. The Reverend does not join in on the celebration, but spends the picnic looking broodingly out at the water and thinking about how to get the villagers to agree to a baptism.
Ruth May overhears her mother and Mama Tataba talking about a neighbor woman named Mama Mwanza who has lost both of her legs in a house fire but still cares for her family every day as though nothing has changed. Ruth May thinks about how many people in Kilanga seem to be disabled. Many of the villagers are missing legs or eyes but no one notices or treats them any differently. Instead of staring at Leah in horror for her handicap, as the people back home did, they often seem to stare at Rachel for her bright blond hair.
Ruth May also hears a conversation between her mother and father where the Reverend harangues the villagers for misusing their bodies and not treating them like sacred objects. Orleanna points out that the villagers must use their bodies like tools so they are bound to wear out more quickly. Her blasé response seems to anger her husband.
The rainy season begins early and when the torrential rains finally let up the Price’s discover that their garden has been completely ruined. Instead of using the mounds that Mama Tataba created, the Revered has replanted the garden flat. This has caused the rain to completely wash out all of the seeds. Leah regathers the seeds and replants them, following Mama Tataba’s advice to use the mounds.
Reverend Price continues to try to convince the villagers to undertake a baptism and Mama Tataba begins to get angry at him for his stubbornness. The Price women watch as the Reverend and Mama Tataba fight from the window but they cannot hear what is being said. When the fight is over, Mama Tataba comes back into the house and tells them that she is going to be leaving them. She quickly teaches them a few important things they need to know to take care of themselves and the house and leaves.
Leah looks for her father and finds him outside in the garden. The garden has flourished since it was planted but it does not seem to be bearing any vegetables. The Revered tells Leah that this is because there are no bugs that are capable of pollinating the plants they brought with them from Georgia. The African bugs don’t know what to do with such foreign vegetables.
Leah asks her father what he and Mama Tataba said to him. Mama Tataba explained to the Revered that the villagers will not agree to be baptized in the river because a crocodile ate a young girl in that river a few months before the Price’s arrival. Now none of the villagers will go near it.
The parrot Methuselah begins repeating swear words and getting on the Reverend’s nerves and he rips the bird from it’s cage and throws it outside. The Price girls watch as the bird flies away.
Book Two: The Revelation
Orleanna struggles without the help of Mama Tataba. Fetching water requires a mile and a half hike and the water then has to be boiled for twenty minutes to be sterilized. The Price family is also used to a far more decadent lifestyle than the natives, eating the kind of large meals twice a day that the natives would usually only indulge in twice a year at most. The natives typically subside on wild tubers called “manioc”.
The supplies that are delivered from the Mission League for the family are delivered by Eeben Axelroot who requires a large bribe before every delivery. Orleanna worries that she will not be able to provide meals for her family and keep them alive and begins having nightmares about their deaths.
Orleanna has realizes that the natives view her family as interlopers and trespassers but the Revered still thinks they see him as a force of good and enlightenment. He refuses to adapt to the environment or change his will in any way, insisting that he is being tested like Job was in the Bible. He has even fought with Chief Ndu over the baptism idea and alienated the chief with his Christian stance on monogamy.
The Prices begins to settle into a routine after living in the Congo for a while. The girls do their daily home school lessons and then have a few hours in the afternoon to play. Leah makes a friend called Pascal.
Ruth May begins bonding the most with the village children and takes time to spy on the adults around her. While spying she accidentally breaks her arm and Eeben Axelroot must fly Ruth May and her father to Stanleyville, a larger town where they may visit a doctor. While flying to Stanleyville, Ruth May notices that Eeben has a large bag of diamonds in his plane and Eeben threatens her mother’s life if she tells anyone.
When Ruth May reveals to the doctor that she was playfully spying on some anti-Belgian forces that have been gathering in their village, he is shocked. The doctor and Nathan get into a heated argument about the need for missionaries in Africa where the doctor thinks that the West is only taking unfair advantage. The doctor is alarmed by the rising support for Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese leader who is preaching a road to independence from Belgium. There are rumors that his party has plans to kill every white person in the Congo. Nathan denies the problem and says that God will protect them.
Back in Kilanga, a young man named Anatole who has been working for the Revered comes by for dinner. He is the schoolteacher of the town who was sent to work in the Belgian rubber plantations and diamond mines as a child. The Underdowns saved him from this fate and sent him to school, installing him as the schoolteacher when he returned. Anatole tells Revered Price that the Chief of the village is worried that the influence of Christianity might induce a decline of the morals of the people in the village. Ndu is worried that his people will begin neglecting their traditional gods and the religious leader that already lives in the village, Tata Kuvundu. Revered Price is shocked by this insinuation and incapable of seeing how an increase in Christianity could cause a moral decline. He throes Anatole out of the house and strikes out at Orleanna, grabbing her by the arms.
Anatole sends a young orphan boy named Nelson to help the Prices around the house. Nelson is very bright and picks up English within a matter of weeks. Leah wonders how he became so smart as the Congolese children are barred from attending school after age twelve. She then begins wondering why Anatole was allowed to stay in school so long and blushes as she thinks of asking him.
Orleanna begins helping the girls make hope chests filled with things that they will need when they become married women. Rachel is the only girl that takes the project with any seriousness as she is the only one that is interested in the idea of getting married. Leah and Adah notice that Methuselah the parrot has not completely left them but stays close to their house and sleeps in their latrine at night.
The Underdowns come for a visit to tell the Prices that the Congo is going to hold an election in May and then declare their independence as a nation in June. The Belgian government has agreed to this. Orleanna argues that the Mission League told them that independence was still at least thirty years away. Reverend Underdown points out that no one told the Prices to come to the village and that their mission trip was not even officially sanctioned. Orleanna is shocked to hear this and begins cursing and angrily shouting about the Belgians poor treatment of the Congolese and the stupidity of granting a country independence without first giving them a period to learn how to subsist on their own. Nathan is less shocked by the news and says that it will never happen so they shouldn’t worry. The Underdowns tell them that they must leave the country before the election for their safety and Nathan becomes angry at this suggestion, saying that he will not leave until his contract ends.
Since many of the villagers in town are illiterate, they prepare for the election by making signs that represent the candidates with symbols such as a knife, matches or a bottle. The villagers cast their votes by placing a stone in the bowl in front of the sign marked with the symbol that represents their candidate. The men are the only one with the right to vote but the women advise their husbands who they should vote for and most of the husbands take this advice.
Adah notices Tata Kuvundu leaving a bowl of chicken bones by their door as an ill omen and takes it as a sign that he is trying to protect them by sending them away.
On another trip to Stanleyville, Nathan learns that Patrice Lumumba has won the election. The Prices receive a letter from the Underdowns telling them to prepare to leave the village and Orleanna pleads with her husband to evacuate. Nathan refuses.
A plane arrives to evacuate the family and Rachel, desperate to leave, tries to get on. Her father stops her by flinging her violently to the ground. Once the plane leaves, Orleanna goes to bed although it is only mid-day and does not get up. Ruth May crawls into bed with her.
Leah, still being the most devout of the sisters, travels to Leopoldville with her father to see the ceremony in which the governing power will be transferred to the new Republic of Congo. While there she is disgusted by the splendor in which she sees the Underdowns and their white friends living while the natives around them live in squalor.
On the day of independence, Adah finds Methuselah’s feathers scattered across the year and realizes that a predator must have eaten the bird.
Book Three: The Judges
Orleanna takes to her bed for a long time. She wonders why she did not take her daughters out of the Congo earlier and relates that she had no money and nowhere to take them if she left Nathan. She has come to believe that God is not really on Nathan’s side. Orleanna then gives us back story on Nathan.
When Orleanna was seventeen, she was not religious but a free-spirited girl. She and her friends attended a tent revival meeting for fun and there she met Nathan who was a handsome young preacher. At that time, Nathan was less serious and more loving. However, soon after the two married, Nathan was drafted into World War II and was wounded in battle. While recovering in the hospital he learned that he had avoided the infamous Bataan Death March in which his entire regiment was killed. The guilt that he felt for surviving plagued Nathan and he became obsessed with saving souls in an effort to save more people than had died on the road from Bataan.
Life in Kilanga continues to get harder as the villagers have stopped coming to the Price’s house to sell them food. Only Mama Mwanza, the legless neighbor shares her food with them, saying that those who have plenty are required to share with those who have less. Leah is surprised by this charity from a non-Christian.
Orleanna and Ruth May are still in bed and rarely get out. The orphan boy Nelson becomes convinced that the family is cursed and Leah remembers the chicken bones that Tata Kuvundu put outside their house.
Adah learns from Nelson that the villagers have been taking a pragmatic view on Christianity. Only the villagers who feel they have been beaten down and cast out by their old religion are attending Nathan’s church and Nelson assumes that when Christianity doesn’t immediately provide for them they will move on to something else.
Orleanna continues to plead with Nathan to let her take her children out of the country but he refuses. He tells her that she is pathetic for not getting out of bed and heeding God’s call. The three oldest girls become responsible for taking care of the family. However, one night Orleanna reappears in the kitchen and resumes her role as caretaker of the family without a word. Now she is intent on speaking her mind to her husband and no longer cowers before him. She begins attempting to find a way out of the Congo on her own and tries to bribe Eeben to fly them out. However, Eeben refuses to work without getting the money upfront.
Leah is surprised to see her mother shaking off her father’s authority. She begins to feel that she might do this too, as she has been doubting her father’s judgment lately in keeping them in the Congo when the country is clearly becoming too politically heated.
Brother Fowles soon visits with his Congolese wife and the Price women idolize him for his more relaxed views on Christianity. The people of the village love him as well as he has a reverence for their local customs. Nathan is the only one who does not love Fowles and the two get in a heated biblical argument in which Fowles takes the intellectual lead. Nathan storms off after he loses the argument.
The region begins to experience a famine do to a drought. Ruth May’s becomes ill and begins to get worse. Tata Ndu begins visiting more often and bringing gifts and Nelson explains to Adah that Ndu wishes to make Rachel his newest wife.
Unfortunately, turning down Ndu’s proposal would be a huge offense to both him and the village. However, any action that Ndu takes has to have the villages unanimous backing. Rachel is terrified that she will be formally asked to marry him. The family discovers that Ruth May has malaria because she has not been taking her anti-malaria pills since she arrived.
The family decides to trick the village into thinking that Rachel is already engaged to Eeben so that Ndu will not ask her to marry him. Because of this, Rachel and Eeben begin to strike up a strange friendship. Rachel begins to devise a secret plan to win him over so that he will fly her family home.
Leah begins teaching math at Anatole’s school and takes lessons from him in French and Kikongo. She also begins learning to use a bow and arrow from Nelson.
Eeben tells Rachel that he is in the CIA but she does not believe him and assumes that he is trying to impress her. The two begin taking long walks together and one day they kiss. He tells her that he knows that Patrice Lumumba is going to be assassinated but she again assumes that he is lying to impress her. Adah spies on Eeben and overhears him speaking a code into his radio and talking to a man named “W.I. Rouge” about linking the assassination plot to President Eisenhower.
Flesh-eating ants being swarming the village and the residents flee to the river for safety. While running, Leah becomes so distracted by the ants crawling on her body that she loses track of her family. Anatole finds her and tells her to wait while he finds her family.
Rachel tries to get onto a neighbors boat during the ant crisis but is flung to the ground. She accidentally breaks her most prized possession, her mirror in the shuffle and stares at the broken shards in horror.
Orleanna grabs Ruth May and begins running with her but must hand her off to someone else. Ruth May begins crying and clutches an amulet that Nelson gave her that is supposed to catch her spirit for reincarnation in the next life. She has decided that she wants to come back as a mamba snake as she fears them.
Adah is stranded as she is unable to run with her disability. She pleads for her mother to help her but Orleanna cannot put Ruth May down. She calls for Adah to do her best and try to keep up. Adah feels abandoned and betrayed she almost gets trampled but Anatole finds her and lifts her into his arms.
Anatole appears with Ruth May and climbs into a boat with Leah. He tells her that her mother and Adah are in a different boat and their father is delivering a sermon about the plagues of Egypt. Leah tells Anatole about the plot that Adah discovered. She begins to cry and tells Anatole that she loves him and he tells her not to say that. Two days after any plague began it ends and they are able to return to Kilanga.
Book Four: Bel and the Serpent
Narrating from the future, Orleanna notes that she has since learned of what was happening politically in the country at that time. In 1960, the head of the CIA sent a message to the Congolese station chief telling him to replace the new government as soon as possible. The chief arranged a military coup with a man named Joseph Mobutu at it’s head. The army took command of the country and put Patrice Lumumba under house arrest but he soon escaped. While he was in hiding he was recognized by a man on the street and made to give an impromptu speech. In the crowd of his speech was a mercenary pilot who contacted the authorities and the army recaptured Lumumba and beat him to death.
Back in 1960, Leah tells us of what happened in the village during this time. Chief Ndu shows up to one of Revered Price’s sermons and demands that a vote is taken in the village for whether or not Jesus should be worshiped. Revered Price is enraged at this blasphemy but has no choice but to agree to the vote. The vote is taken and Jesus loses by a large margin. None of the Price women besides Ruth May cast a vote.
A hunt is set up by the men of the village. A large debate begins over whether Leah, who has become very talented with a bow and arrow from Nelson’s lessons, should participate in the hunt. The issue is put to a vote and Leah is allowed to participate in the hunt. Tate Kuvundu is angered by this and warns that a woman participating in the hunt goes against the gods. He says that the animals will rise up against them and the villagers become terrified at the prospect.
Nathan forbids Leah from going on the hunt but she openly disobeys him and tells him that she is not going to listen. She storms off and Nathan chases after her with his belt. The remaining Price women lock themselves in the girls room. Leah returns at dawn and crawls in through the window of the room. That evening Anatole finds an evil sign outside of his hut and a mamba snake curled up in his bed. The village sees this as evidence that Kuvundu’s proclamation is coming true.
Leah manages to kill an antelope during the hunt but gets into an argument with the Chief’s son over who killed the animal. After it is proven that she killed it, the animal is still taken away. Leah complains to her family that she was cheated out of the antelope that she killed. Nathan tells her that God has no mercy for her as she disobeyed her father and that he has washed his hands of her moral education. He will not even bother to punish her as he does not feel that she deserves it. No longer fearing punishment, Leah calmly but firmly tells her father that she no longer respects or believes him.
Nelson appears and tells the Price’s that he has found an evil sign outside of the chicken coop where he sleeps. He begs for permission to be allowed to sleep in the house but Nathan forbids it as he sees the evil signs as meaningless. Leah takes pity on Nelson and her sisters follow her out where they cover the floor of the chicken coop with ashes. This is a cue from a sermon of their fathers. They intend to have evidence if anyone enters by catching their footprints in the ashes.
The next morning the girls discover footprints in the ashes but not ones that they expected. The prints clearly belong to Tata Kuvundu as they have six toes on the left foot.
A mamba snake is curled up in the corner of the coop. Nelson pokes the snake and it rushes out of the coop. The snake whips past the girls and Ruth May lets out a gasp and a sob. The girls assume that she is just scared of the snake and try to comfort her. However Leah soon notices that Ruth May has been bitten by the snake. Nelson screams at Leah to rush to get some milk. Leah is paralyzed with fear and the girls watch as Ruth May turns blue and dies.
The girls stand over the body in shock for a long time, too afraid to fetch their mother. Finally, they tell her and Orleanna calmly collects Ruth May’s body and washes it, laying it outside on a table as is the local custom. Nathan’s only response is to lament that Ruth May had not yet been baptized. Leah is abhorred that this is her father’s first instinct and glares at him, seeing him as a simple, ugly man for the first time.
The village begins to wake up and Orleanna collects all of the families worldly goods and begins distributing them to the villagers. The children of the village gather around Ruth May’s body and it soon begins to rain. Nathan comes out of the house with a Bible and baptizes all of the children in the rain.
Book Five: Exodus
Orleanna Price –
Orleanna explains that after the death of Ruth May she felt the need to start walking. She soon began walking out of the village and her other daughters followed her.
The Price women are only stopped by Mama Mwanza’s daughters offering them water and oranges. The Price women take only these meager foods on their escape to Leopoldville. On the way to Leopoldville, Leah and Rachel become sick. A few men on the road are kind enough to carry Rachel the rest of the way to a village called Bulungu.
Leah spends weeks recovering from malaria in a hut that belongs to one of Anatole’s students. Anatole has left Kilanga and is organizing some political movement in the neighboring villages. Rachel manages to board Eeben’s airplane and escape the Congo. Adah and Orleanna try to get to Leopoldville by ferry and Leah remains in Bulungu as she is too sick to move. Anatole nurses her back to health and the two fall in love. Once Leah becomes well again she realizes that she wants to stay in the Congo with Anatole and become his wife.
Rachel Price Axelroot
Rachel and Eeben escape to Johannesburg, South Africa where they end up in the mostly white high society. They pretend to be married for the sake of propriety and Rachel wonders when Eeben will actually propose to her and make this lie a reality.
On the way to Leopoldville, Adah and Orleanna are found by an army truck and kidnapped. The soldiers plan to harm them but Orleanna’s eyes seem to frighten them and they take the girls to Leopoldville unharmed where they bring them to the Belgian embassy. At the embassy, they are treated for diseases and put on a plane to Georgia.
Back home in Georgia, Adah and Orleanna move into a cabin in their old town. Orleanna begins gardening and supports herself and her daughter by selling flowers. Adah decides that she wants an education and enters college where she discovers a love for science.
The villagers of Bulungu dislike that a white woman is living in their presence and Anatole manages to sneak himself and Leah out to Stanleyville where there is still support for Lumumba. However, the villagers in Stanleyville blame westerners for the death of their revered leader and hate Leah as a result. Anatole remains in Stanleyville to revive Lumumba’s plan for peace with his fellow revolutionaries but sends Leah away to a French mission in the jungle. Leah begins working for the infirmary. Anatole is soon arrested for his political leanings and imprisoned.
Rachel Price Axelroot
Rachel is unhappy that Eeben has still not proposed to her and that he consistently disappears on shady business dealings. Rachel begins taking an interest in her best friend’s husband, a man named Daniel who is the First Attache to the French Ambassador. Daniel is having trouble in his marriage and has been having an affair with Rachel for a short while.
Leah Price Ngembe
Anatole is released from prison after three years and marries Leah. The two move to his hometown, Bikoki where he works as the headmaster of the high school and Leah volunteers at a clinic. Brother Fowles visits them and says that her father continues to preach the gospel in Kilanga although it is mostly futile and that Pascal was murdered by the army.
Adah attends medical school and physically therapy for her limp. Orleanna moves to Atlanta to be near her daughter and begins working to campaign for civil rights. Leah comes to Atlanta to visit and brings her husband and their newborn son.
Ten years later
Leah Price Ngembe
Leah and Anatole have three sons, Pascal, Patrice and Matrin-Lothaire and move to a city called Kinshasa. Though they live meagerly, they are rich compared to those around them. Leah resents the leader of the country, Mobutu for living in great wealth and pretending to care about the country.
Rachel Axelroot DuPree Fairley
Rachel is now on her own after three failed marriages. Her last husband, Remy Fairley passed away and left her a luxury hotel in his will. Rachel begins running the hotel and finds a lot of success and personal fulfillment in doing so. She does, however, resent the fact that no one from her family has come to see the hotel and especially resents Leah since she lives the closest.
Leah Price Ngembe
The Ngembe family visits the United States again, this time, so that Leah and Anatole can obtain more schooling. Leah goes to school for agricultural engineering and Anatole for political science and geography. When they return home Anatole is again arrested for his political leanings and Leah waits anxiously for him to be released.
Rachel Axelroot DuPree Fairley
One month from the time that Anatole is set to be released from prison, he and Leah decide to build a farm in the southern part of the country. Orleanna raised the money to buy them a vehicle for the farm and Adah agrees to bring the vehicle to the country. The sister decides to use this as an opportunity to reunite.
The trip lasts three weeks and tensions rise between Rachel and Leah because Rachel has recently barred blacks from staying in her hotel. Leah informs her sisters that she has discovered that their father is dead. He was trying to bring a boatload of children to the river for baptizing after being repeatedly asked to leave the village and the boat was turned over by a crocodile. Many of the children died and the people of the village ran Nathan out of town. He climbed up a tower that they then set on fire.
Adah becomes an epidemiologist and works for the Center for Disease control in Atlanta. She becomes completely cured of her limp and her muteness through physical therapy but finds that she sometimes misses having these handicaps.
Leah and Anatole have another son and name him after Nathan. They struggle to make their farm a success and anxiously wait to move across the border to Angola, a country that is free from foreign rule. But the nation is currently war-torn partly because of American interference. Leah wonders if she will ever find a place that she wants to call home.
Part Six – Songs of the Three Children and The Eyes in the Trees
Rachel Axelroot DuPree Fairley –
At the age of fifty, Rachel looks back over her life with satisfaction. She is proud of making her own place for herself in the jungle although she is somewhat sad at having lived away from America for so long. She thinks that her success comes from ignoring everything that she does not want to see.
All of Leah’s sons save the youngest are grown and have moved out. She and Anatole are still very much in love. They have lived in Angola for ten years on a farm and Leah teaches classes nearby on agriculture. She still struggles with white guilt and calls herself “the missionary” asking to be “converted”. But she claims that she has found relief in knowing that she has done wrong and gotten through it.
Adah struggles with the knowledge that saving a life is not always unambiguously a good thing. She leaves medicine and begins devoting her time purely to science and research. She begins to admire the viruses she studies and feels that they have as much right to be on earth as anyone.
The Eyes in the Trees
In the final POV chapter of the book, the reader is shown Ruth May’s voice once again only now she has been made wiser by death. Ruth May says that every life is made different by the other lives that touch it. She watches as Orleanna and her three sisters return to the Congo to find her grave but they cannot reach the country since it is so overcome with war. There is no way to get over the border from Angola. Mobutu has disappeared after thirty-five years ruling, sick with cancer.
The Price women are stopped by a woman selling small animals carved from wood and realize that she is speaking the native language of Kilanga. They ask her for news of the village but she tells them that no such place has ever existed and that the road stops at Bulungu. At the end of the book, Ruth May forgives her mother and asks Orleanna to forgive herself.
Orleanna Price – the mother of the Price family. Orleanna was at one time a very carefree, nature-loving young girl. When she was seventeen she met the handsome young preacher Nathan and the two married quickly. Nathan’s increasingly intense religious views have beaten Orleanna down and cowed her toward her husband. At the beginning of the novel, she is a passive, fearful women who obeys her husbands orders without question.
Orleanna begins to change after the country suffers political upheaval and she decides that she wants to get her daughters out of danger. Orleanna’s agency returns slowly and then all at once as she takes to bed for weeks and then begins talking back to her husband when she finally arises. After the death of her youngest daughter, Orleanna experiences somewhat of a mental breakdown and simply walks out of the village with her daughters, leaving her husband to live or die on his own.
Orleanna lives for many years happily but is still plagued by the guilt of the death of Ruth May which she feels is her fault for not getting her family out of the Congo earlier. It is obvious from her character throughout the novel that she will mostly likely never truly forgive herself for this.
Reverend Nathan Price – the father of the Price family. Nathan is a Baptist Preacher who has become overzealous in his approach to saving souls. During World War II, Nathan managed to escape the infamous Bataan Death March by begin wounded and hospitalized shortly beforehand. He now feels incredible survivors guilt over this and is determined to save as many souls for God as died that day.
Though this is perhaps a noble cause, Nathan has become so single-minded about it that he precludes everything else in his life, including the safety of his family. Nathan is so determined to save the villagers in Kilanga that he completely ignores their standing religion and forcibly baptizes many children. Nathan is the only character in the story that does not grow or change throughout it. He dies alone, his family having deserted him and the villagers attacking him for accidentally drowning several of their children in a botched baptism.
Rachel Price – the eldest daughter of the Price family. Rachel is an egotistical, materialistic girl of fifteen at the start of the novel. She is disgusted by the villagers and their culture and wants to return home immediately. Rachel’s most prized possession is her hand mirror, which she sneaks into the country in her pocket and later breaks while fleeing from the flesh-eating ants.
After escaping the village, Rachel runs off with the morally gray pilot Eeben Axelroot and later marries him. She then leaves him for another married man and goes through two more marriages before we meet up with her again at the end of the novel. Though we watch her age to fifty years old, Rachel’s attitude toward the native people does not change and she insists on taking no black guests at her late husband’s luxury hotel.
Leah Price – the second-oldest daughter of the Price family. Perhaps the character that experiences the most growth, Leah begins the novel as a fourteen-year-old girl who idolizes her father and believes whole-heartedly in his gospel. However, as she spends more and more time in the Congo and begins to get to know the villagers, she comes to despise her father and his teachings. She finally disobeys him to his face and sets of the emotional chain of events that later causes Orleanna to walk away from the village.
After leaving the village, Leah is struck with malaria and must stay behind to recover with Anatole. Leah falls in love with Anatole, decides to stay in the Congo and devotes her life to improving the lives of the Congolese people in a secular way by creating a commune farm with her husband and teaching classes on agriculture.
Adah Price – Leah’s twin sister. Adah was born with a medical condition that prevents her from using the left side of her body. Adah uses this to put herself in a sort of observant exile from the world, where she watches everyone around her and only speaks when absolutely necessary. After escaping from the village she returns to the US with her mother and becomes a brilliant doctor and research scientist. Adah manages to cure her condition with physical therapy and time.
Ruth May Price – the youngest daughter of the Price family. Ruth May is only five years old when they family moves to the Congo and fits in the easiest, quickly befriending all of the village children. Ruth May is a bright, fun young girl who respects and enjoys the local culture although she greatly fears the wild animals in the jungle. Ruth May suffers a bout of malaria that dampens her spirits halfway through the novel. When she recovers she is slightly more listless and removed and is ultimately killed by being bitten by a mamba snake. Her death puts into action the idea that Orleanna had about left the village and the rest of her sisters are saved when the village is later razed.
Barbara Kingsolver Biography
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8th, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland. Her father, a doctor, moved the family to the rural town of Carlisle, Kentucky when she was just a girl. For a short time when she was a child, Kingsolver lived with her family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while her parents did public health work there.
Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Indiana and began her lifelong activism there with protests against the Vietnam War. She graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor’s degree in Science and lived in France for a year before eventually settling in Tucson, Arizona. In the mid-1980’s, Kingsolver began her writing career as a science writer for the University of Arizona which then led to some work for the Tucson Weekly newspaper. She soon submitted a short story to another local newspaper and won a contest. This began her career in fiction.
In 1985, Kingsolver married Joseph Hoffmann and two years later gave birth to a daughter named Camille.
Kingsolver’s breakout novel, “The Bean Trees” was published in 1988 and quickly followed a few years later with a sequel called, “Pigs in Heaven” (1993). In 1990, dissatisfied with America’s involvement in the first Gulf war, Kingsolver moved with her daughter to the Canary Islands. After returning to America two years later, she separated from her husband and married another man named Steve Hopp with whom she had a daughter named Lily.
In 1998, Kingsolver’s most well-known novel, “The Poisonwood Bible” was released and saw immediate success. The novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Prize of South Africa. In the year 2000, Kingsolver created a prize to support authors who have as yet unpublished works that reflect social justice issues. The prize is called The Bellwether Prize and is awarded in even-numbered years. That same year she was awarded the ‘National Humanities Medal’ by then-president Bill Clinton.
Kingsolver has since published 3 more novels, “Prodigal Summer” (2000), “The Lacuna” (2009) and, her most recent novel, “Flight Behavior”, (2012).
In 2004, Kingsolver and her family moved to Washington County, Virginia where they currently live.