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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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The Things We Didnít Know: Kilanga, Sept. 1960 (Continued)


(Cluster 7: The invasion of the ants.)



Rachel awakes to hear her mother screaming for everyone to get out of the house. She grabs her mirror as the "one precious thing" she wants to save. In the road, everyone is pushing and shoving while swatting at ants, which are crawling all over them. In the night Rachel can hear her father yelling about Moses and the plagues.

As they head for the river, Rachel recalls a book she had once read that described ways to survive a variety of calamities. One method of surviving a panicked crowd without getting trampled was to simply ram oneís elbows into the closest individuals and pick up oneís feet, thereby being carried on the force of the crowd. Rachel tries it and finds that it works "like a charm." Instead of getting trampled she floats "like a stick in a river, carried along on everyone elseís power."

Upon reaching the river, Rachel soon realizes that people are climbing into boats to escape the ants. She sees Mama Mwanza being carried on her husbandís back and follows him, trying to get into their familyís boat. She is thrown back with an arm across her face. She drops her mirror, which cracks on the side of the boat and falls in slivers into the mud.

Ruth May


Mama is carrying Ruth May, carting her along in both arms like a large flour sack. Just as they climb into a boat, she sees Adah. Her mother reaches a hand to her and cries out to her. Someone else takes Ruth May. In fear and panic, she remembers to think of her "safe place" as Nelson taught her.

Ruth Mayís safe place is a green mamba snake away up in the trees. She imagines herself as a snake and says she wouldnít have to be afraid of them any more because she would be one of the them. That is "exactly" what she wants to be when she "has to disappear."



Adah awakes and drags herself out of bed amid the screams of her sisters. She thinks she has been left behind when she sees her mother with Ruth May in her arms. Adah asks for help, but her mother cannot carry both her and Ruth May and Nathan has apparently gone ahead with Rachel. Finally, Mother turns away, commanding Adah to follow. Her mother is soon out of sight, and Adah is soon knocked down by the crowd. She feels herself being covered with ants and feels the feet of the crowd walking across her. Her only thought is that she has been left behind when Anatole lifts her above the crowd and carries her to the safety of a boat. Her mother is already there. Orleanna tries to hold her hands but Adah refuses. They stare at each other without speaking, Adah wondering that she had thought her own life worth saving. She believes this night is the central crisis of her life, the moment when the slope toward death began.



Leah finds herself pushed into a boat and sees Anatole behind her with Ruth May over his shoulder. Anatole informs her that her mother and Adah have gone ahead with Tata. Boanda, that Rachel is a screaming demon and that Nathan is giving a sermon somewhere.

Leah tries to get Anatole to discuss the role of God in the invasion of the ants, but he rejects the idea, pointing out that ants are always on the move and an unusually dry season will make them attack in search of food. One cannot blame God for what ants have to do. She brings up Congolese politics, trying to find an analogy between the ants and the rumors of persecution against whites by certain disillusioned African factions. When he refuses to discuss Congolese revolutionary movements, she attempts to get him to agree with her in blaming God for failing to protect them. His answer is that God is not a mathematics problem with everything coming out equal. Good things sometimes happen for bad people, and good people still have more than their share of problems. She realizes that her reaction is childish, but cannot stop feeling sorry for herself. She insists that no one cares about them other than Anatole himself.

Anatole agrees that they should never have come to Africa, but that in spite of that, people are trying to help them. Tata Boanda is taking her mother and sister to safety, and Tata Lekulu is rowing Nathan to safety in spite of having to stop his own ears with leaves to shut out Nathanís preaching. Besides that, Mama Mwanza has given them eggs from her own chickens, and Nelson often found oranges, manioc and even meat in the kitchen where none had been the night before. While they should not have come to the Congo, they are here, and no one wants them to starve. The people believe that white people "make troublesome ghosts."

When they arrive at the opposite shore, Leah spots someoneís rescued chicken and suddenly thinks of their own chickens shut up in their coop. Two days later, they return home and find the chickens reduced to nothing but clean skeletons. Leah recalls the experience as the night God turned his back on her and she learned to foretell the future in chicken bones.


The invasion of the ants is a secondary climax within the novel. Each girl is given a narrative voice in this section, allowing the reader to gauge their characters according to their individual reactions. Ruth May, carried out by her mother, reacts as would be expected. She wants her mother and feels more terrified when someone takes her away from Orleanna. However, she remembers her "safe place" and closes her eyes remembering the green mamba snake safe in the tree. Itís almost as though she is practicing for the future.

Rachel rides on the wave of the masses, refusing to think about what could be happening. She tries to save herself even at the possible expense of one of the village people, as if she considers herself more valuable and simply assumes others will agree. Adah also tries to save herself, although in contrast with Rachel, she has to crawl on the ground and try to avoid the feet of other people who consider her not worth saving. She acquires a unique, personal perspective on the struggle to live that effects every living thing to the smallest, least regarded organism. The survival of the fittest takes on a new meaning.

Leah, being the most agile and independent gets into a boat ahead of her sisters. The ants are a supreme bit of evidence of their powerlessness over the jungle, regardless of her fatherís preaching. When she cannot find a way to blame God or any reason to believe that God will intercede and restore things as they were, she abandons faith in Christianity for herself. She pours out her feelings to Anatole, trying to force him to explain how the ants could happen, how her family could be so wrong in what they were supposed to have been trying to accomplish. She also, in a rush of adrenalin filled emotion, tells Anatole that she loves him. He tries to discourage her from having any such thoughts, but the night of the ants is the true beginning of their courtship.

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Ruff, Karen DA. "TheBestNotes on The Poisonwood Bible". . 09 May 2017