18 Feb / The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston, illustrated by Claire Ewart
“For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty … The family who had lived there had gone away during the troubles, because they were different from most of the people in the village.” The unnamed “long war” is over, and Sameer watches as a family comes home, “carrying everything needed to bring a house back to life.” The neighbors are polite, but aloof; in spite of their proximity, both families stay separated on either side of the dividing wall.
Sameer’s first verbal exchange with the girl-next-door is harsh: Muna insists that the olives that have fallen onto Sameer’s side of the wall from the vast tree which hangs over both properties are not for Sameer’s family to enjoy, as they have done for as long as Sameer can remember. “‘[T]he tree is on our land,'” Muna demands. “‘It has belonged to my family for a hundred years.'” Sameer tries to explain how his family took care of the tree the many years that Muna’s was away, but Muna only grows angrier: “‘But now we’re back … and we’ll take care of it. We’ll have the olives.'” In frustration, Sameer dumps the collected olives over the wall onto Muna’s side.
The silent standoff continues, the olives remain on the ground until “a fierce autumn storm” shatters the precious olive tree and knocks down the stone wall. Still the families remain only on their sides; still “[n]o one spoke as they gazed at the remains of the tree.” As Sameer is about to turn away, Muna explains: “‘They always told me about this tree … It seemed to me like our home, which we nearly lost. And now it’s gone.'” The words they share quickly become actions – helpful, supportive, forgiving, surprising, and hope rises from the destruction.
For millenia, the olive branch has symbolized peace. But more recently, olive groves have become battlegrounds in the Middle East, where centuries-old family lands have been tragically bulldozed again and again and again. Author Elsa Marston is clearly knowledgeable about the societies and politics of the area; she’s focused on the Middle East in many of her books, having earned a graduate degree in Middle Eastern history at the American University of Beirut, as well as extensively traveled and lived there with her late Lebanese political scientist husband.
Marston never glosses over the ongoing conflicts, even for the youngest readers; instead, she provides simple, welcoming examples on how to be better neighbors. Sameer and Muna find a way toward understanding by working together, even though their parents never cross beyond their respective sides. Artist Claire Ewart’s sensitive, enhancing illustrations underscore how our eyes see more similarities than differences between the two families: members of both families have brown eyes, dark hair, and similar coloring; both mothers wear headscarves suggesting that both families are most likely Muslim. And yet even when an ‘act of God’ – quoting insurance lingo, anyway – destroys the wall, the invisible divide between the adults remains. Thankfully, the children – again and again – bring promise and hope. They enact the actions that cross boundaries to create a better future. Once more, the children reclaim the olive tree as a symbol for peace.
Tidbit: The Olive Tree is actually one of Marston’s older stories: it began as a submission to a fiction contest sponsored by Highlights magazine for children; the story won and appeared in the October 1993 issue. The following year, the story won the International Reading Association [now the International Literacy Association]’s Paul A. Witty Short Story Award. Finally, two decades later, the picture book debuted last fall, ready to inspire a new generation of peacemakers indeed!