Summary and Analysis
Orleanna remembers her overwhelming grief when Ruth May died, so much so that Orleanna felt that she had to keep moving so that her grief wouldn't catch up with her. After clearing out the house, she took Rachel, Leah, and Adah and walked out of the village. As she remembers that day, it becomes clear that she has been talking to Ruth May. She begs Ruth May for relief from her guilt, saying, "If you are the eyes in the trees, watching as we walk away from Kilanga, how will you make your judgment? Lord knows after thirty years I still crave your forgiveness." She wonders if Ruth May's spirit is still just Ruth May or if she has become part of the larger spirit of Africa.
When Orleanna and her three daughters leave Kilanga in the deluge of rain, they head toward the neighboring town of Bulungu. Their journey is made nearly unbearable by the mosquitoes that are hatching and filling the air, biting and choking the Price women. During the trip, Leah succumbs to malaria and has to be carried to Bulungu on a pallet. Once they reach Bulungu, Orleanna negotiates with Axelroot to fly Rachel out of the Congo and finds a truck driver who agrees to take her and Adah to the embassy in Leopoldville. Orleanna leaves Leah in the care of Anatole, who is also in Bulungu. After Leah recovers enough to travel, she decides to stay with Anatole and marry him, rather than rejoin her mother and sister.
Axelroot takes Rachel to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they live together but don't marry. Thrilled to be back in civilization again, Rachel goes to parties and begins making friends. She eventually grows tired of Axelroot and turns her attention to her friend's husband, who is an attaché to the French ambassador. Her scheme works, and she marries him and moves to Brazzaville, French Congo.
Back in the United States, Adah has decided to break her self-imposed silence and begin speaking. She enrolls at Emory University in Atlanta, determined to eventually go to medical school. Science has become her religion. She frequently visits Orleanna, who has moved into a small cabin and has begun a garden. Adah often wonders about Orleanna's reasons for choosing to take her out of the Congo rather than Leah.
Anatole is imprisoned for his revolutionary activities, and while he is in prison, Leah stays in the safety of a convent. She hears news that Nathan is still in Kilanga, now living in a hut in the forest after his house burned. He is still intent on baptizing people and sounds as if he has gone a little mad. While at the convent, Leah works on learning languages, including Lingala, which is widely spoken throughout the Congo. She has some moments of despair over what has happened to her family and especially to Ruth May, but her focus on Anatole helps keep her from a complete breakdown. After Anatole has been imprisoned for three years, he is released and he marries Leah. They move to Bikoki Station, where Anatole is reunited with his mother's sister, Elisabet. While there, Anatole works as a teacher, and Leah volunteers at a clinic.
In medical school, a neurologist tells Adah he thinks she can be cured of her dragging right side and encourages her to take part in an experimental program. For six months, she doesn't walk at all; instead she crawls and uses a wheelchair. One day, she feels a snap on her right side and is soon able to teach herself to walk again — this time without the limp. As someone who always defined herself by her disability, Adah now wonders who she is without it.
Busy with medical school, Adah sees Orleanna, Leah, and Anatole only sporadically. Leah and Anatole are also at the university. Leah is studying agronomics there and is pregnant with her second child. Orleanna is involved with civil rights work, especially marches. Everyone is still haunted by what happened to Ruth May.
In the 1970s, Mobutu changes the names of cities and places to make them "authentic." Leah and her family, who have moved back to Africa, practice quizzing each other on the changed names — for example, Leopoldville is Kinshasa and the Congo is Zaire. She and Anatole have three sons and live in a small tin-roofed house in Kinshasa with Elisabet. Life there is difficult. They have little food, and Leah longs for more protein. The family lives in fear of Anatole being imprisoned again for his loyalty to the Lumumbist party. Because of the economic problems caused by Mobutu's mismanagement of funds, people in Kinshasa resort to bribes and the black market in order to take care of things as simple as getting one's mail.
Rachel has married again and is a widow. Her husband left her a hotel — The Equatorial — in the French Congo, about 100 miles north of Brazzaville. She pours all her energy and devotion into the hotel and thinks, "Finally, Rachel, this is your own little world. You can run it exactly however you please." She is a good businesswoman and is successful. However, she is attuned to class and racial distinctions and comments that she doesn't view Leah's children as her relations because they are half black.
In 1981, Anatole is arrested again for treason, and his family fears that he will die in prison. Orleanna's friends in Amnesty International write letters on behalf of Anatole, and Orleanna raises money to bribe officials to give Anatole some food.
In 1984, Rachel, Leah, and Adah reunite one month before Anatole is set to be released. The sisters rediscover their different outlooks on life, and Rachel and Leah argue about communism. Leah reveals that she has heard that Nathan is dead. She tells her sisters that he had moved up the Kasai River over the years and was still trying to baptize children in the river. He had gained a reputation for turning into a crocodile and attacking children. When a boat full of children from the village he was in was attacked by a crocodile, the village blamed Nathan. They tried to chase him out of the village, but he resisted and ended up being surrounded in a watchtower. The villagers set fire to the tower and he burned to death. Adah comments that his death parallels a section of the Old Testament. Later, when she returns to the states, Adah tells Orleanna about Nathan's death.
Readers may find this section to be a bit long and disjointed. That feeling comes from the sudden change in pacing that happens here. The previous four sections together covered a period of about a year and a half, while this section covers twenty-five years. Additionally, in the previous four sections, all the characters were living in the same place and, therefore, were narrating different viewpoints of the same series of events. In this section, however, the narrators are in different locations, leading separate lives. As a result, their stories are told with large temporal and geographical gaps.
Why does Kingsolver alter the movement of her story this way? And why doesn't the story end with Ruth May's death? The answer to both questions lies in the fact that this novel is a political allegory. Kingsolver is telling the story of the Congo's journey to independence after colonial rule. Unfortunately, that journey didn't end with Lumumba's election in 1960 or with his death in 1961. After Lumumba died, Mobutu ruled for more than three decades, destroying the country's economy in the process. The Congo would not have a chance to be truly free until Mobutu was no longer in power. Therefore, to make her story follow history, Kingsolver needed to continue tracking the lives of the Prices.
After Ruth May's death, the Price women scatter, each one on her own path. It is in this section that their different philosophies are fully developed. Rather like her father, Rachel pursues her own agenda at the expense of others. Racism and classism mark her as still having American attitudes about life in Africa. She is happy with the little world she has created at The Equatorial, although — again, like her father — she has ended up alone. Leah, on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction as Rachel. Still an idealist, she desperately wants to be forgiven for her whiteness and what her country has done to Africa. Married to a revolutionary, she believes in social activism and tries to create change in small ways, teaching people about health and agricultural issues. On the other side of the ocean, Adah also tries to change the face of Africa, but she uses science rather than activism. Haunted by the memory of all the children she saw die in Africa, including Ruth May, Adah studies viruses and tries to find cures. Finally, Orleanna is haunted by guilt over Ruth May's death. It gnaws at her and leaves her restlessly searching for forgiveness.