Sunday, August 28, 2011
Review of The Orange Tree
Ganzglass, Martin R., 2011, The Orange Tree, Peace Corps Writers Press, 418 pages, ISBN 9781935925033, perfect bound trade paperback.
The Orange Tree is a moving story of the interaction between representatives of two very different cultures. Helen and Amina, an elderly Jewish woman and her Somali nurse, meet in an American nursing home. The relationship that develops between them is the nexus that brings together both of their families and unfolds for the reader a story of the 20th century in central Europe, in the Horn of Africa, and in America. There is a lot of history in this book, but it is not a history book. It is about life, It is about today, and most of all it is about human beings dealing with life and what it brings.
One thing I particularly like about this book is the flashbacks. If movement back and forth through time is written poorly the narrative thread can be disrupted, never to be repaired. Ganzglass knows how to step out of the present and into the past. He shows us vividly how our past creates our selves. And what a fascinating past there is. My ancestors come from Europe. I have read about the wars that shaped the continent, but my knowledge about these things was impersonal, even though they are part of my history. Now, through this story of the life of Helen and her family, it's personal. In The Orange Tree we don't learn as much about Amina and her family, and I knew far less about Somalia than about central Europe to begin with, but it feels authentic. And just as personal.
The Orange Tree is a first novel, but it was written with keen insight into human nature and a well-developed ability to express that insight in words. The author, an American, worked for several years in Somalia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, he has maintained a compassionate interest in the Somali people. When cultures meet they don't have to clash. Dissimilar people can strengthen one another, and The Orange Tree shows one way that can happen.
I recommend this book. I read it in two sittings. If my body could still afford the effects of staying up all night to finish a novel, I would have done that with this one.