The Gospel of Trees

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Thank you to Simon & Schusterfor providing me with a copy of Apricot Irving’s memoir, The Gospel of Trees, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Apricot Irving was in elementary school during the 1980’s, when her parents accepted a missionary trip to the island of Haiti. She spent a majority of her childhood living in Haiti, with occasional trips back to the United States. Irving’s memoir is about finding a sense of belonging, both as an American being raised in Haiti, and of trying to connect with her father, who is temperamental and who often pushes aside the needs of his family in efforts to help his adopted country.

LIKE– The whole time I was reading The Gospel of Trees, I kept thinking about how Irving, who is just a few years older than me, was living such a dramatically different childhood than my own. Prior to moving to Haiti when Irving was six, her parents lived a simple life in the Coachella Valley, which is only a few hours from where I was raised in Glendale. Her mother dreamed of moving to a farm in Oregon, but was committed to raising a family with Irving’s father, who wanted to make a go at farming near his family in Southern California. The missionary opportunity in Haiti came due to her father’s agriculture expertise, as he was able to help the struggling island with farming and forestry.

Living in Haiti was a complex situation. It’s impossible to not have a place where you’ve made your home, especially one where Irving spent a majority of her childhood, not leave an imprint on your soul. Haiti is a very special place to Irving. It is a very special place to many of the missionary families who decided to move there, many making a life-long commitment. However, the missionaries are not always welcome. It’s very complicated.

Haiti is a poverty stricken country, that has a history of trauma. It was a former colony of both Spain and France, winning its independence through a bloody revolt. It was occupied by American forces during the WW1, who stayed for twenty years. Haiti has struggled for both its independence and to figure out its own government. It certainly doesn’t help that it has been ravished by natural disasters. With all of this, it is very contentious when missionary families, mostly white missionary families, try to help. Beyond race, there is also an obvious class issue. The missionary families may be giving up a lot of comforts while in Haiti and they may be considered poor (as was Irving’s family) back in America, but when compared to most of the Haitians, they are very well-off. Simply living in the missionary homes gives them comforts and safety that the Haitians do not have. Also, they can always leave. Irving does a solid job of explaining Haiti’s history and way it impacted the island.

Irving struggles with the poverty she witnesses and the realization that she is privileged. She feels an enormous sense of guilt, even from a young age, over this realization. Haiti is very much her home, but she also knows that she is an outsider. Her Haiti is not the same Haiti of the Haitians.

Irving’s father is a complex and difficult man. He has high expectations for his daughters that are difficult to meet and it seems that his expectations are amplified, when he is in Haiti, a place with so much need. They live in close proximity to an orphanage and her father takes a shine to an infant named Ti Marcel. Ti Marcel is a miracle baby, rebounding from near death. Ti Marcel becomes part of Irving’s household and the attention that her father gives to the infant creates a lot of jealousy in Irving. Ti Marcel will later be taken in by her own family members and moved far away. Irving’s father orchestrates visits to see Ti Marcel as she grows up, visits that are filled with tension and awkwardness. Even Irving’s mother felt jealous towards the attention her husband paid toward Ti Marcel. For her part, Ti Marcel does not remember the family that took care of her as an infant and the visits from this white missionary family are strange. Ti Marcel made a huge impact on the dynamics of Irving’s family, but she does not really understand it.

On a personal note, I visited Haiti in 2008, while on a Royal Caribbean cruise. RC has a private beach on the island, which they bring cruisers for day trips. It’s is the most pristine and gorgeous beach that I’ve ever visited. It’s paradise. It’s also mostly isolated from the rest of the island and the Haitians. Really, we could have been anywhere and it didn’t feel like we were on Haiti.

We did a jet ski excursion and in the middle of the excursion, while we were as far away from the beach as possible, our guide had us stop. An elderly Haitian man paddled out to us in a canoe. He was rake thin, missing both legs and nearly all of his teeth. Our guide, a local, waited as the man made the rounds to sell inexpensive jewelry and other small crafts. Everyone bought something and it was a very uncomfortable experience. I’m pretty sure that RC did not authorize this aspect of the excursion, as it seemed that they were making all efforts to keep us as isolated from Haiti as possible. The day at the beach was carefully orchestrated. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Haiti. This isn’t an excuse, but a fact. Now, I feel really uncomfortable knowing that I was enjoying an amazing, luxurious day at the beach, while extreme poverty was a stones throw away. I can’t think of my wonderful vacation memoirs, without wondering at what expense it was to the locals. I can’t get the elderly man in the canoe out of my mind. I’m sure that in some respects the tourism helps the local economy and is welcomed, but I’m more thinking that it’s wrong to visit a country in such a limited capacity. It’s  a facade to keep the tourists happy. Reading The Gospel of Treeshas started to breakdown that facade.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Irving’s memoir is heartfelt, compelling, and thought-provoking.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Gospel of Treesis one of the best memoirs that I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a wonderful blend of Irving’s experiences with historical information regarding Haiti. I gained deeper insight into the long-term ramifications of colonialism and of the complex issues that Haiti continues to face.