I’ve been having several conversations lately about how grisly and parent-deprived children’s stories are, and have been for centuries. Partly this is because of the book Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature by Michelle Ann Abate that I received for Christmas this year, and partly because every other parent always wants to know why so-and-so’s mother or father or both are dead. Many blame Disney, and while Disney movies are a prime and very prominent example of this tradition, the Mouse is hardly to blame. Bad things happen in children’s stories. Sometimes, it is didactic in nature: don’t stray from the path or talk to strangers, Little Red Riding Hood! Sometimes, it is so the hero’s journey can start from the depths of despair before reaching its pinnacle (everyone from Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter). But it is a truth universally acknowledged, that happy people with happy lives don’t make very lively literature. It is with this in mind that I think about Zebra Forest, the debut novel of Adina Rishe Gerwirtz.
Annie and Rew live with their grandmother in the zebra forest. Their father died when they were both very young, and their mother left them, saying “They were always his idea, anyway”. Annie and Rew’s grandmother has her good days and her bad ones, and the kids have learned to adapt and survive, dodging school, grocery stores and social workers. During the summer of 1980, with the backdrop of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Annie and Rew get an unexpected visitor after a nearby prison break: Andrew Snow, their father. What follows is a tense numeration of days in which the children become hostages in their home, learn secrets of their family history and discover hidden secrets within themselves.
For children who have always had a family, explaining why some children don’t can sometimes be tricky. The death of a parent, while sad, is at least straightforward. Explaining why a parent simply walks away is something else entirely. In the course of Zebra Forest, Annie and Rew must come to terms with 1). a (falsely) dead parent, 2). a parent that chose to leave them and never return and 3). a parent that was taken away from them, albeit through the fault of his own actions. Ms. Gerwirtz handles all these balls in the air with surprising ease and sensitivity. The story is told from Annie’s point of view, but her brother’s feelings are just as keenly felt and understood.
Zebra Forest is not a story with much levity. It’s a bad situation that only gets worse before it gets better. But it’s a story worth reading, because everyone can understand the themes of loss, anger, fear and forgiveness. Even if most of your experience comes from Disney movies.
Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
2013, Candlewick Press
2013, Candlewick Press