At fifty, Rachel surveys her life and feels utterly satisfied. She regrets, somewhat, living apart from the American culture with which she still so strongly identifies, but she is proud of carving out her own domain amid the jungle. She attributes her success at maintaining mental stability in Africa to a simple procedure: ignoring everything she does not want to see.
All of Leah's sons except for Nathaniel are now grown and on their own, and she and Anatole return to the intimacy of their youth, waxing ideological as they lie in bed at night, wondering what life might have been like with no colonialism. They have been living in Angola for ten years on an agricultural station. Leah teaches classes in nutrition, sanitation, and soybeans. She still suffers under the burden of white guilt, calling herself the "unmissionary asking to be converted." Yet she claims that she has found "the simple human relief of knowing you've done wrong and living through it."
Unable to believe in the possibility of a world in which saving a life is uncomplicatedly and unambiguously a good thing, Adah leaves the profession of medicine and devotes herself fully to scientific research. She admits that she does not view it as her work to vanquish the viruses that she studies; rather, she admires these creatures, believing that they have as much right to the earth as human beings.
We now we hear Ruth May's voice, matured and made wise by death. She returns us to the scene that Orleanna described in the opening chapter. The okapi that Orleanna came across, Ruth May tells us, was scared away and lived another year because of that. Every life, she concludes, is different because we passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit in everything. She then paints another scene: Orleanna leading her adult girls through a market. They are supposedly there to find Ruth May's grave, but really they are saying goodbye to their mother. They cannot even reach Ruth May's grave because the Congo is swept by war, and there is no way to get over the border from Angola. After thirty- five years Mobutu has run away in the night, his body ridden with cancer
The mother and daughters are stopped short by a woman whose style of dress and benevolence seems familiar to them. She is selling tiny animals carved from wood. She speaks Kikongo, the language spoken in Kilanga, though this city is far from that region. Orleanna buys some elephants for her grandchildren, and woman gives her an okapi as a gift. It turns out that the women is from Bulungu, yet when they ask for news of Kilanga, she claims that no such place has ever existed. The road stops at Bulungu.
The book ends as Ruth May forgives her mother, and asks that Orleanna forgive herself.
When she speaks to us from 1968, Adah claims that she needs a religion or something to believe in. Orleanna, she claims, has a religion in the form of her pagan nature-worship and her obsession with forgiveness from Ruth May. Leah too has a religion, Adah claims, in the form of her suffering. Rachel, she admits does not have one and is the happiest of them all, but she argues that Rachel's religion might just be a worship of herself. By the last time she speaks to us from the late nineties, Adah has found a religion. Her religion is science, the facts of the world.
Like Leah's religion, Adah focuses on justice. Adah has given up any lingering belief in a human-centric world, and so thinks of justice in global terms. On a global level, she believes, there can never be any true justice, only balance. The world regulates its population according to its carrying capacity. That is, one life form will always have to die for another to live, whether that is one person for another, one animal, or one virus. She cites Albert Schweitzer's mission to save every African child by providing them with medicine. Though successful in the short term, the overpopulation that resulted has led to deforestation, famine, and drought. Adah does not despair over this ruthless balancing act, but marvels over it. She is able to rise above her human skin and view the world as an objective observer, much as she once viewed her family and Kilanga in this way. From this vantage point the shaky accord between human, plant, virus, and mineral is admirable rather than frustrating. For humans to be winning would mean for the other populations to be losing. It is not even clear what this would mean, other than perhaps for humans to all live to an old age and then die peacefully in their sleep.
Leah, the compassionate person-lover, retains her human-centric focus, and comes to despair of justice even on that more narrow level. Even within human society, she admits, "there is not justice in this world" (Song of the Three Children: Leah Price). In this sphere too there is only the possibility of balance. What balance could mean in this context is not as clear as what it means in the global context, where the symbiosis of different life forms feeding off each other's deaths is well-known. Most likely, in referring to balance in the sphere of human society Leah means only to refer to the easing of inevitable tragedy and injustice that human beings can constantly try to effect.
The book ends with the words, "Walk forward into the light," echoing the familiar motif of lightness and darkness. Until now light has been primarily used to symbolize all that is untainted by an acquisitive greed and arrogance. If we interpret this sentence with that reading in mind, Ruth May seems to be telling her mother to walk away entirely from the world of her husband and the crimes perpetrated in Africa, the world of darkness. That is, she is telling her to forget her associations with that world, and thereby to forget her guilt. Alternatively, here the light might symbolize something much more simple. It might symbolize forgiveness itself. In all likelihood, the light is supposed to symbolize both of these things: the opposite of the dark world of greed and arrogance and also forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, might itself be seen as the opposite of the darkness at the heart of the book's dual tragedies.
Corrections: There are several mistakes in this article, from plot-related to grammatical. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: a) Adah's right side, not her left, is crippled, b) the author used "effect" as a verb, and c) it's wringing, not ringing, near the end. Someone should probably look over this sometime. Also, the article presents Nathan Price as a completely flat character; however, he has his moments of uncertainty (for example, when he reshapes his garden into mounds, or when he reacts to the news of the little girl... Read more→
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