By Eve Bunting; Illustrated by Karen Barbour
Sophia’s grandfather “gifts” her with an olive tree on her seventh birthday. But the tree is on a small island in Greece where Sophia’s mother was born. A year later, her dying grandfather also entrusts her with her grandmother’s beads, urging her to hang them on her olive tree. All of this leaves Sophia, who is growing up in California, utterly confused.
This is how the story begins in Eve Bunting’s “I have an olive tree.” Eve Bunting moved to the U.S from Ireland and started her writing career with an Irish folktale. Later, she went on to write an array of diverse stories across age ranges, and won innumerable awards for her work. I particularly love her children’s stories dealing with war—narrated in very simple words, they are always powerful and moving.
Sophia is on a plane to Greece with Mama and then on a ferry to the island. Throughout, she notices how Mama is silent and nostalgic, yet at ease with a sense of familiarity. We experience the place through Sophia’s observations of people and things—a sponge seller, a priest, a flock of sheep and a man playing bouzouki catch her attention. More importantly, we see how strange and emotional she begins to feel at “home” with Mama, but in a land very different from what she now calls home.
Finally, beside two harmless goats, they find the olive tree. Sophia hangs the beads just like her grandfather wanted. But standing under the family tree and watching the beads sparkle in the sun, she realizes why really her grandfather had wanted her to do this.
The story evoked familiar emotions in us. While I easily related to the nostalgia of the adult, I am sure my seven-year-old found in Sophia the same mixed feelings that frequently grip her when we visit India every summer. During these trips, I’ve often caught my children struggling to react to my excitement at something that seemed ordinary to them. Naturally, we connected well with this story. But I can also see this book opening up wonderful talks about ancestors and heritage, providing an enriching read for children, parents and grandparents.
Karen Barbour’s colorful spreads take us on a journey to a Greek isle. One cannot miss the distinctly Greek people or several cultural nuances evident on every page. Gold and blue, characteristic of an island destination, dominate the color palette. The details congeal to create a mix of distance and longing, a feeling we often associate when we take ourselves and our children back to our roots.