The Granite Tower
ARTS & CULTUREBOOK REVIEW
Behind the Leaves
Kim Yeojeong  |  letrajet18@korea.ac.kr
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“Climbing a tree takes you closer to heaven,” said the mother to Gabi who enjoyed being in the forest as a Mayan. However, society did not let her find peace. Trembling and heartbroken, Gabi barely managed to survive at the age of 15 when the civil war broke out in Guatemala. Hiding up in the tree, she had to face the brutality of humans behind the scenes. Would she be able to have hope as a tree girl once again while her miserable situation made the future gloomily invisible?
 
   
▲ PROVIDED BY HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS
The Mayans had been living harmoniously in their villages. In 1960, however, the civil war between the government and the leftists tears their community apart. Fortunately, Gabi escapes from the massacre by hiding in a tree but she feels guilty that she survived alone. From then on, she searches for her sister, Alicia, whom she lost during the confusion. Arriving at the refugee camp, she finally meets Alicia and decides to be a tree girl again so that she can protect the refugees, her new family.
 
Based on a true-life story, Tree Girl (2004) conveys vivid descriptions of the events and the feelings through the first-person narration of Gabi reflecting on her childhood memories. Witnessing the brutality of the soldiers’ violence, she tells herself, “My revenge would be to stay alive and someday speak of what I witnessed.” Feeding her determination, the murder scenes in the book are depicted in detail and they are much more terrifying because the readers empathize with the fear of the young protagonist.
 
In the voice of the actual victims projected on the fictional girl, Tree Girl gives the readers graphic indirect experience of the war. Although the background is the Guatemala war, the shock and pain that the protagonist suffers are not far from those of the contemporary people. It is well known that large and small accidents or irrational social systems often make people become impotent in front of those in need of help, as in the case of school bullying or the April 16 ferry disaster. The ubiquitous attribute of the sense of guilt and trauma adds the value of the theme in the book.
 
One of the most important characters in this book is Manuel, whose life was stolen by the soldiers at the beginning of the book. Teaching Spanish and the love for children to Gabi, he foreshadows the risk of the village and Gabi’s settlement in the camp as a teacher. With the shocking scene of his death and the foreshadowing, the book gains more interest. At last, Gabi starts to open her mind to the new community in the shelter of the refugee camp living with Carmen, Rosa and Alicia. She overcomes her trauma while assisting Mario who resembles Manuel in that he is also a right-minded teacher.
 
What the author is telling us throughout the whole book is that people need to seek hope and love for humanity rather than become lethargic about humans. Comforting each other, people can face up to reality and take their own roles to improve the situation. With their own determination and the love of others, people can recover from their dreadful experiences just as Gabi climbed a tree again and decided to keep teaching the children in the refugee camp. Describing Gabi’s new hope by ending the story with her being in the tree again, the book sends the message that one can overcome traumatic adversities and stand up once more.
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