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Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 3 Section 2 Parts 18 22 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 18–22) : The Judges (The Things We Didn't Know, Kilanga, September 1960) | Summary




Late one night voracious and dangerous ants swarm through the village, biting everyone and causing great destruction like a plague. To survive, people run to the river. Leah gets far ahead of the rest of her family. Anatole finds her at the river, distraught because she left Adah behind. Anatole tells her to stay put while he looks for her family. Leah tries to pray.


Rachel describes the night as, "I'm alive in hell." She saves her mirror—the only one in the village—but is separated from her family. She hears her father ranting about the plagues of Egypt. Rachel pushes and shoves to get to the river, but then wails when no one will help her into a boat. She gets knocked down and her mirror breaks.

Ruth May

Orleanna carries Ruth May and tries to keep her calm. When another person takes Ruth May from her mother, she panics: "I was going away from Mama is all I knew." She thinks about the "safe place" Nelson told her to find. She decides it would be safest to be "a green mamba snake away up in the tree."


Adah was abandoned to the ants. She is angry, and asks herself, "Is it evil to look at your child, then heft something else in your arms and turn away?" Adah asks for help, but desperate Orleanna turns away, saving Ruth May instead. Adah is almost trampled, but Anatole saves her. She ends up in a boat with her mother: "That night marks ... the moment when ... the long downward slope toward death began." Adah wonders why she ever thought her own life worth saving in their chaotic existence.


Anatole returns to Leah, carrying an unconscious Ruth May. He says the rest of the family is safe. Leah asks if the ants are a curse from God, and he simply replies, "No." She is angry at the ants, but he tells her they are trying to survive. She tells him what Adah learned about Lumumba, and he does not respond. He tells Leah this is not the time to talk, but she persists. He warns her not to treat life like "a mathematics problem," because good people still face troubles and bad people "can still be lucky." Leah claims he is the only one who cares about her family, and he challenges her, naming specific ways other people in the village have helped them. Leah softly tells him she loves him. He orders her, "Don't ever say that again." Leah describes this night as "the night God turned his back on me."


This series of chapters describes the ant invasion from each daughter's perspective. They all get out safely, thanks to Anatole. He gets Leah on a boat, carries Ruth May, makes sure Adah does not get trampled, and sees Orleanna and Adah safely into another boat. He even checks on Rachel and Nathan, the two family members most of the village would gladly leave behind.

Adah's mother literally turns her back on her crippled daughter. Of course Ruth May is the youngest and is sick, so she needs help. But Adah—understandably—cannot accept how she asked her mother for help and was abandoned by her. Adah questions why she thought her own life worth saving when her mother apparently did not: "Even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious." They end up in a boat together and Anatole has Ruth May, but Adah says Orleanna "tried to hold [her] hands but could not." Why not? Her hands are empty. Maybe Orleanna reaches out and Adah refuses to accept it.

Anatole offers a broader perspective than the one offered by Leah. The ants are not a curse—they are simply looking for food. He tells Leah people may act like ants: "When they are pushed down long enough they will rise up." To Anatole, this is how nature works, but Leah sees it as a betrayal from God. She must have been bad, she argues, because God is not protecting her. Anatole refuses to participate in a dysfunctional religious debate. He tells her something everyone struggles with as they grow up: life is not always fair. Bad things do not happen only to bad people.

Leah, for all her good intentions, is still very young. When she dramatically exclaims no one helps them, Anatole describes one man "rowing ... with leaves stuffed in his ears while [her] father lectures him," and tells her their neighbors hide food in their house. Leah thinks of the times Nelson had found food in their previously empty cupboards: "We believed so hard in God's providence that we just accepted miracles in our favor." The Price family obviously should never have come to the Congo at this time, nor likely at any other time, but the Congolese people are helping them, in spite of Nathan's colonialism and blind rudeness.

Leah admits she is in love with Anatole, but he immediately shushes her. She takes it as a rejection, but it could be dangerous for a Congolese man to be in relationship with a young white girl. Leah tries to replace God and her father with Anatole, even saying, "I repeated his name because it took the place of prayer." Anatole refuses to be her god, and Leah feels abandoned.

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