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Bewildering Stories

Alice S. Hill, When the Tree Is Dry

reviewed by Alison McBain

When the Tree Is Dry
Author: Alice S. Hill
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Date: January 22, 2017
Ebook: 371 pages
ASIN/BN ID: B01N25GQWX; 2940154249963
Price: $1.00

I don’t know if you’re supposed to put the words “epic” and “modern” together to describe a book. “Epic” is a story with extreme highs and lows, where the heroes have their lives constantly in danger, as well as being tested to the very limits of their mental endurance. An epic tale makes me live through the experience with the characters. By the time I reach the end, I feel wrung out, yet oddly justified for having taken the journey.

But most often, “epic” also seems to imply a long-ago historical period. It’s usually applied to literature like Beowulf. However, I strongly feel that history is being made today, and that epic stories are currently happening. There are modern-day people who face situations so far beyond everyday life that they become heroes.

So, if I am allowed to mash together the two descriptors “epic” and “modern,” they are the words I feel best sum up Alice S. Hill’s novel When the Tree is Dry. It’s a story told about the highs and lows of the human condition, and it is also modern, taking place mostly in 2008, with isolated flashbacks and also flash-forwards to the present day.

The story is told in a mixture of points of view (POV), with more minor characters justifying third-person POV, while the three main characters — Sekai, Florence and Claire — are told in first-person POV.

I must admit that I have a bad memory, and that sometimes makes me reluctant to pick up a multiple main-character story. Often, I start reading an epic and have forgotten half the cast of characters by the time I reach chapter two. I think I’m not entirely to blame, though, as many authors, especially new ones, like to slap a reader in the face with the whole lineup of characters right away. Often from page one.

And, sometimes, to be honest, the characters are written to look and sound alike, down to similar-sounding names. I find it confusing if I have to read about Hagar, the blond-haired, blue-eyed sword-wielding hero, and Heegar, his blonde-haired, green-eyed best friend who has a crossbow.

However, this was definitely not the case in When the Tree is Dry. From the get-go, the characters are unique, each one easily distinguishable. I was impressed how the narration changed naturally in each chapter. The description in Sekai’s chapter feels authentic as the voice of an uneducated native Zimbabwean living her whole life in a rural village, whereas Claire, a British native and journalist, has a much different tone to her passages.

I felt I really got to know these women, that they were real people with real concerns and real lives, not fictional characters brought alive through the pages of a book. I read a lot of books in my profession, and I feel that this is rare for me nowadays, that the story is told in such a way that I forget I’m reading a work of fiction.

The majority of the book takes place in 2008, with most of the events occurring either in Zimbabwe or Britain. However, the narrative starts out with a flashback from 2005, the last election year in Zimbabwe, and it drops the reader right into the heart of the dangerous situation faced in Zimbabwe. A girl is pursued through the bush by unnamed assailants, afraid at any moment that she will die.

There are plenty of action scenes like this as the book continues to 2008. The political situation is volatile throughout the country, and the current, corrupt president Mugabe will try to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

As an African history buff, I was fascinated by the conversations between the characters about the deteriorating political situation in Zimbabwe and what it means to people from different backgrounds. Characters from each class level and location are brought to life — from rural locations to urban, from foreigners to natives, from those who want to help to those intent on harm.

There is Sekai, a housewife with two children, who lives in rural Dombo re Zhou Village. Her husband Albert has decided to become the opposition party’s election agent, even knowing it will put his family in danger. And it does — Zanu PF, the party holding power, doesn’t stop short of intimidation tactics. They don’t just threaten, they carry through with their threats, using fire to burn rural villages to the ground, beatings, rapes and murder.

When Albert disappears and Sekai gets beaten nearly to death, the characters have to come to terms with what it will cost them to continue to fight for a nebulous ideal that is putting themselves and their families in danger.

Then there is Florence, a highly educated native Zimbabwean who has returned home to the capital city of Harare after a stint in Britain. She signs up to become an MDC organizer. But her job description changes over time from pre-election rallies, where they hand out posters and give inspiring speeches, to post-election refugee aid, smuggling food and clothing supplies to patients in hospitals and political prisoners who are rotting in jails.

Anyone associated with the MDC party is at a very real physical risk, herself included. When Zanu PF starts their intimidation tactics, she stands up to them more than once, doing whatever it takes to help those injured in the fight.

Last, but not least, is Claire. While once an amateur journalist in Britain, she decides to forge a new career for herself after her husband cheats on her. Her college friend lives in Zimbabwe, and it’s a matter of kismet that Claire decides to visit her friend and see if she can take her career to the next level in reporting.

She knows little about Zimbabwe, though, and steps into a powder keg of a situation. Not only the lives of the people she interviews are put in danger, but her own is, as well. However, when she sees how people are suffering, she must face a hard choice between reporting the news so others can help Zimbabweans and helping directly, herself.

Before long, Claire questions whether journalistic integrity is worth seeing people suffer. She must find a way to reconcile her job and mission in the country with the pain and misery that make her stories relevant.

This story is enlightening and sobering. It shows that there are good people in the world fighting for justice, yet that doesn’t mean they will necessarily win or even survive. And yet the message in the book is clear. Fight for what is right, fight for what you believe in. No matter the cost, no matter who you are, and no matter what it takes.

I was inspired when reading Ms. Hill’s book, and will be thinking about it for a long time to come. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Copyright © 2017 by Alison McBain

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