The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien Summary
In this heartrending and inspiring novel set against the gorgeous, vast landscape of South Africa under apartheid, award-winning playwright Pamela Gien tells the story of two families–one black, one white–separated by racism, connected by love. Even at the age of six, lively, inquisitive Elizabeth Grace senses she’s a child of privilege, “a lucky fish.” Soothing her worries by raiding the sugar box, she scampers up into the sheltering arms of the lilac-blooming syringa tree growing behind the family’ s suburban Johannesburg home. Lizzie’s closest ally and greatest love is her Xhosa nanny, Salamina. Deeper and more elemental than any traditional friendship, their fierce devotion to each other is charged and complicated by Lizzie’s mother, who suffers from creeping melancholy, by the stresses of her father’s medical practice, which is segregated by law, and by the violence, injustice, and intoxicating beauty of their country. In the social and racial upheavals of the 1960s, Lizzie’s eyes open to the terror and inhumanity that paralyze all the nation’s cultures–Xhosa, Zulu, Jew, English, Boer. Pass laws requiring blacks to carry permission papers for white areas and stringent curfews have briefly created an orderly state–but an anxious one. Yet Lizzie’s home harbors its own set of rules, with hushed midnight gatherings, clandestine transactions, and the girl’s special task of protecting Salamina’s newborn child–a secret that, because of the new rules, must never be mentioned outside the walls of the house. As the months pass, the contagious spirit of change sends those once underground into the streets to challenge the ruling authority. And when this unrest reaches a social and personal climax, the unthinkable will happen and forever change Lizzie’s view of the world. When The Syringa Tree opened off-Broadway in 2001, theater critics and audiences alike embraced the play, and it won many awards. Pamela Gien has superbly deepened the story in this new novel, giving a personal voice to the horrors and hopes of her homeland. Written with lyricism, passion, and life-affirming redemption, this compelling story shows the healing of the heart of a young woman and the soul of a sundered nation.