And so we come to the end of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
I have to admit, when I had about 100 pages left, I wondered why the story was still going on. But as I kept learning more about each of the girls I once again marveled at what a masterpiece this is. I wondered what my impression would have been if the story had ended with Orleanna and the three surviving girls walking out of the village. I think I would have been so relieved and closed the cover and thought, what a sad disaster.
But to read how life unfolded for each of them, I was left with a different reaction. Before we get to that, here’s what stood out to me in this section:
Leah and Anatole living with his Aunt Elizabeth: “I’m hungry for any family I can get. I’m lucky if I hear from Mother and Adah twice a year. It’s not their fault. I know they’ve sent countless packages that are piled up somewhere in the great, crumbling postal edifice downtown.” That deep hunger all of the Price girls had just made me so sad.
Again from Leah: “I survive here on outrage.” I’m impressed with the family Anatole and Leah forged. They were able to create and pass on that which neither got in their childhood.
And then we hear from Rachel. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Were you surprised that she’s running a hotel? This made me smile: “My secret is: I like it!” I was struck in this chapter how much each girl doesn’t see the value in what her sisters have chosen. “And in my family, all our hearts seem to have whole different things inside.”
We hear so much more from Leah and Rachel in this last portion; so even though Adah has regained her speech and no longer limps, her voice seems less here than in earlier parts of the book.
Leah expressed with the tension of feeling pulled between two worlds. Part was endearing, like describing “America as devoid of smell.” Part was heart wrenching. “I already spent a whole childhood thinking I’d wrecked the life of my twin sister, dragged after me into the light. I can’t drag a husband and sons into a life where their beauty will blossom and wither in darkness. So we came home. Here. To disaster.”
“I’ve done what I can, it seems, and now I have to do what I can’t. Wait.” Leah’s longing to belong and to not be “foreign” tugs at me. Much about Anatole and Leah’s story need to be unpacked in the comments, so let’s do that.
And then the reunion! Arghhhhhhhh. I get it that they are three very different people, but it was here where I could almost taste how their relationships might have been different if they would have been exposed to the true gospel and grace in childhood. Rachel could use her hotel as a place of refuge and racial integration. Adah could use science as a window to the amazing complexities of creation. Leah and Anatole could use their passion for causes beyond the politics of this world. Instead, they are each lesser versions of their true selves.
Did you think Nathan could fall any lower? And then to have his death associated with the drowning of children when he so longed to baptize them. Sad, sad, sad. But brilliantly written as she wove his story in with the girls’ knowledge of scripture.
Upon return home Adah says, “Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split-body drag I lost the ability to read in the old way.” It saddened me she could no longer play with language the way she used to. Where has part of your identity been changed that people on the outside thought was great, but secretly you kind of miss the old you?
But Adah is still so funny! “If Rachel ever gets back to Bethlehem for a high school reunion she will win the prize for ‘Changed the least.'”
From Orleanna, “Not one woman in Bethlehem ever asked me how Ruth May died. Did you know that?” I felt so sad to read this.
Sorry this is jumping all over :). Now my mind wanders to Leah and Anatole having four boys, just like Nathan and Orleanna had four girls. I loved when Leah said, “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.” Oh the power of forgiveness! I am reminded afresh of how truly wonderful forgiveness is over earning. Thank you God.
The book ends with us hearing from each girl one more time. In the final chapter, I thought it was the jungle speaking at first. (Okay, full disclosure I was reading it during an eye exam and the doctor had me trying out a new reading prescription. Let’s just say when I reread it today, I see how much I missed and will keep working with my doctor.) Anyway, so I thought it was the jungle speaking and wondered if Kingsolver was referencing the Garden of Eden and the garden mentioned in Revelation. But then I realized it was Ruth May. Which seems only fitting to end on.
“Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Even the child Ruth May touched history. Everyone is complicit. The okapi complied by living, and the spider by dying. It would have lived if it could.”
Reading this book with you had impacted me greatly. Thank you. As I look back and to bring this to an end, these are my three main takeaways:
1. We can only pass on what we have. Nathan didn’t have freedom, so he couldn’t pass it on. What do I have that I’m passing on? What do I need to let go of so I won’t pass it on?
2. What we pass on will live l-o-n-g into the future. Seeing this book over a 40ish year span reminded me to live with one eye on today and another on the trajectory of where I’m headed.
3. Above all: the children! Of all that I have read recently, this book has fanned the flame of protecting, providing for, and truly seeing the children in our lives.
How about you? What will your takeaways be? What stood out to you? I love our chats!
P.S. Next week I’ll share the plan for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Since it’s “short” compared to this, I didn’t want to race forward too fast. Let’s savor this book and the ways God is using it in us.
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