Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 3 Section 2 Parts 13 15 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 13–15) : The Judges (The Things We Didn't Know, Kilanga, September 1960) | Summary




To Rachel's great disappointment, no one celebrates her 17th birthday. Leah is helping Anatole teach school, Adah simply forgets, and Orleanna gives Rachel a pair of earrings and a bracelet with a handmade card, but it's not enough. When Ruth May develops a 105-degree fever, Rachel decides it happened on purpose to ruin her birthday.


Adah is amused to realize her father's poor pronunciation means he has told people Jesus is like poisonwood, an absurd but yet symbolic slip. Although Ruth May is no longer bedridden, "she is not the same Ruth May she was." Nelson is convinced she is as good as dead. Rachel is too preoccupied with her faux fiancé to notice.

Anatole gave Leah a bow and arrow, and Nelson is teaching her to shoot. She is pretty good at it, although many in the village think it is inappropriate. Adah compares her to Hester Prynne, protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. Her bow and arrow mark her as different from everyone else.


Leah's feelings for Anatole are obvious. She compares his profile to "a Pharaoh or a god in an Egyptian painting." They talk of studying together. Anatole tries to explain the Congolese complex attitude toward white people—they think white people know everything, but they resent it when white people tell them what to do. Anatole, for all his studying, also has a lot to learn. He is puzzled by the number of cars in America and how Americans buy their food. Leah admits there is a gap between Congolese and American ideas, and says her father tries to force American ideas on the Congolese, which works as well as "wheels on a goat."

Leah asks why Anatole translates for her father, and Anatole explains that he wants the Congolese to understand what white people are offering, so they can choose for themselves: "What I believe in is not ... important ... People need to know what they are choosing." Leah discovers Anatole's biggest wish is to see a map of the whole world. He does not even know the world is round! Leah excitedly offers to make him one. She says she should teach geography to his students, but Anatole says they would not believe her.


Their time in Africa is changing all the girls, although Rachel changes the least. She has always been self-centered, but her attitude toward Ruth May is hard to accept. Ruth May's fever rises to 105 degrees—a dangerous level necessitating immediate medical care—and Rachel claims it's a plot to spoil her birthday.

Leah's bow and arrow are a symbol of the ways in which she is changing. Adah compares her to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter: Hester Prynne lives in a highly religious community. She becomes pregnant with a baby that is not her husband's and is forced to wear a red "A" on her clothes for the rest of her life, signifying her adultery. Refusing to be ashamed of her choice, Hester embroiders an elegant "A" on her clothes. In the same way, Leah flaunts her decision to defy societal expectations. Like Hester, Leah takes risks for love.

Leah's beloved is far different from the father she used to idolize. Aside from the obvious—age, skin color, and so on—Anatole values people's freedom to choose for themselves. Nathan values obedience to God, or to Nathan, as God's representative. Leah has struggled with her place in Nathan's world: if women have no say in anything, how can they earn their place in heaven? But to his credit, Anatole gives her a place in his world, although Adah suggests he is breaking rules to do so.

Anatole is an admirable character, well grounded in reality. He is well spoken—Leah says, "He spoke better English than Rachel"—and wise about life in the Congo. Still, he is clueless about things even Ruth May knows, such as the fact that the world is round. Unlike Nathan, Anatole will freely admit what he does not know. When Leah offers to make him a globe, he accepts. Leah realizes he was "speaking to [her] now as a grown-up friend, not a child."

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