cover image Beyond the Mango Tree

Beyond the Mango Tree

Amy Bronwen Zemser, Author Greenwillow Books $14.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-688-16005-0

Based on the author's memories of her years spent in Liberia as a child in the 1980s, this stunning first novel reveals the schism between two classes and cultures while evoking the loneliness of a white American girl living abroad. Zemser sets a dramatic opening scene through Sarina's first-person narration: Sarina's mother, who suffers from diabetes and grows weaker and more erratic every day, has tied her to a mango tree in the corner of her family's gated grounds to keep her from straying. Boima, whose ""bones protrude in places where on my own body I must press down on flesh to feel them,"" frees Sarina both literally and figuratively. He tells her to meet him at the market where he sells his hand-woven baskets, ""I can show you all kind a something-o."" She finds a way to rejoin him, and he introduces her to the world ""beyond the mango tree"" through ancient legends and walking journeys. When Boima invites Sarina into his home, she witnesses a level of poverty she has never seen before. Through a series of small awakenings, Sarina begins to see that no mere gate separates her world from Boima's, but rather a gulf. Zemser demonstrates exquisite crafting with a scene near the conclusion that tragically echoes the book's opening scene. The author carefully constructs the contrasts that allow readers to detect the inequalities of the society as well as the universality of friendship's rewards, through the voices of her characters, their home environments and visual images (as Boima reaches into a muddy pool to cut the twine binding Sarina's feet, she observes, ""Rain drips from his eyelids as he stirs the water, creating a wave of circular patterns. His dark hands, unlike my own pale feet, do not seem to twitch in fear of the unseen bottom [of the pool]""). Zemser's poetic, wrenching narrative transports readers to a foreign land, but the truths they uncover will surely hit home. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)