A little girl peers down out of a tree at a society flawed by racism. It's an iconic image, but this time the story isn't set in the American South, but rather in South Africa under apartheid. The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien, opened as a one-woman play in 2001 to rave reviews and numerous accolades, including an Obie and a Drama Desk award. In it, Gien played some two dozen characters as she told the story of a girl whose understanding of her country is tied to her relationship with her beloved Xhosa nanny.
The South African author obviously isn't the first to expose racism by showing it through the eyes of a child, and her novel has explicit parallels with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like Scout, Lizzie Grace is a bright tomboy who idolizes her father. Here, Isaac Grace is a doctor rather than a lawyer, but like the saintly Atticus Finch, he does what he can to combat the growing racism of the 1960s, working in a hospital in Soweto township despite the whispers of his neighbors and the danger to himself. Lizzie's mother struggles with bouts of depression, so, also like Scout, Lizzie is largely raised by a housekeeper, Salamina, when she's not running blissfully wild on her grandfather's farm.
All of Lizzie's family are remarkably liberal in their ideals: Lizzie's mom helps out in the hospital in Soweto (albeit reluctantly), and Lizzie's grandfather is beloved by his workers. (He hands out scones with strawberry jam to his favorite children and doesn't charge anything at the farm store, claiming that "the till is broken.") As the novel opens, the Graces are moving into quiet, long-term rebellion against apartheid.
Salamina is pregnant, and under a new law that says that only blacks with work permits are allowed in Johannesburg, her baby will be sent away to Soweto township. The whole Grace family works to keep Salamina's baby a secret, and 6-year-old Lizzie takes her responsibilities very seriously. After carefully reviewing all her favorite hiding places, she plans to secrete little Moliseng in the giant syringa tree in the backyard. "I would position the infant on my back, instruct it to hold on and to remain silent. I would scale the ebony bark with my long, flat feet, more agile than any monkey, until I reached the highest perch, my sweet nest in the profusion of lilac flowers and golden berries."
But as Moliseng grows, she becomes harder to hide. Eventually, twin tragedies end up separating the Graces and Salamina. Then in 1976, soldiers killed 600 unarmed students in Soweto, and a disgusted Lizzie emigrates to the United States. She doesn't return until after the end of apartheid, when she reunites with Salamina at last.
I've never had the pleasure of seeing the play, but my guess is that watching one woman perform everyone from a British grandfather to a Xhosa housekeeper in a two-hour tour de force is more stunning than reading the same story on the page. The underlying tale of "The Syringa Tree" remains powerful, but there are places where the cracks in its transition to a novel show through. For example, certain characters remain ciphers, such as Lizzie's younger brother, John, and her best friend, Etta, who sounds fabulous but gets all of three paragraphs. And readers never get to know Lizzie as an adult: Gien speeds through her teenage years and shows us nothing of her life in America.
Instead, Gien takes the opportunity the novel affords to indulge in long descriptions of an obviously beloved landscape, and unless you're a Romantic poet, these can get excessively lyrical. She puts her descriptive powers to better use when skewering the Afrikans neighbors, a pastor who is a member of the Broederbond that dreamed up apartheid, and his girls, the youngest of whom Lizzie dreams of befriending. "Her important father, a tiny-eyed boat of a man, poured himself into seam-bursting black suits that, except for his ruddy, cherubic cheeks, concealed every part of him. With the highveld dust attaching itself to all that black, my mother said he was the visual equivalent of a dirge."
The syringa tree – with its sheltering branches and poisonous berries – remains a compelling central motif, whether it's presiding over secret meetings of black activists in the Graces' backyard or raining berries down on a grieving mother. But Gien didn't choose it just because it's pretty. She has a symbolic reason for picking that member of the lilac family over, say, an acacia. "They're uprooting them in all the public areas," Lizzie's dad explains of syringas when she returns to South Africa as an adult. "They want only indigenous trees and plants, Lizzie. These cause terrible ecological damage. They're invaders, you know."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.