Jenny's Library

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewirtz: A Rant and Review

Posted on: May 25, 2013

I’ve read few books that have made me as angry as Rishe-Gewirtz’s debut novel, Zebra Forest, has.

[Caution: Serious spoilers ahead!]

The most kind thing I can say about it is that the prose is decent to promising.

Sadly, the plot is contrived and severely stretches one’s suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t start out this way; we begin with a situation that is more probable than many like to admit: an eleven year old girl and her younger brother, father dead and mother having left them, being cared for – or, not cared for, as is more often the case – by their elderly and mentally ill grandmother.

Yet even before we get to the unrealistic parts of the plot, the characterization here is off. Annie B, as her grandmother calls her, conspires with her neglectful guardian to make sure they aren’t taken away from her, but is careless about homework and cavalier about missing school. While this is certainly possible, it’s not terribly probable, as most children who take over adult duties in order to keep dysfunctional families together are often focused on perfection, pleasing adult mentors, and not making waves. My problem is not that Annie is a-typical, but that the author’s decision to make her so is representative of the way that the stress this situation places on Annie and her brother is ignored and swept aside. It makes sense for Annie to see chaos and empty cabinets as normal; what doesn’t work is the way this seems to have little effect on Annie’s own emotional health and patterns of behavior.

(And for anyone who wants to excuse the shallow portrayal by pointing out that this is a middle grade book, I suggest you go read Suzanne LaFleur’s excellent first novel for young readers, Love, Aubrey.)

This fragile equilibrium is thrown in disarray one summer evening when there is a riot at the nearby jail and an escaped prisoner breaks into their house and holds them captive. In a Star Wars style twist, the convict is actually their father – he was never murdered, he’s beenlocked away all these years for committing murder. Don’t worry about him having nefarious plans the kids; Mr. Snow is just as surprised by this turn of events as the children are and had no idea whose house it was he was breaking into. After holding the kids hostage for a month – during which time he bakes them muffins and cleans the house as if his name was Snow White rather than Andrew Snow – their father decides to turn himself in, and life goes back to the way it was. Only now Annie has a father to visit in jail.

Just on the off chance that this course of events wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, it’s revealed during that month that the man their father murdered was someone their mother had been dancing with (when she was supposed to be taking care of the kids) and that she’d been pressured (by her older husband) into having kids in the first place. But don’t worry, he never hurts the kids (aside from, you know, holding them hostage for a month). Going with this book’s main theme of “arguing for improbable things” the two violents acts we are told about – the murder and the hostage taking – are framed as isolated incidents, rather than shown to be part of a pattern of behavior. He just lost his temper, after all, the murder wasn’t planned or anything.*

Even worse, Annie had several chances during the month to try to get help from other adults, but did not. Rather than using these events to explore the psychology of why this happens, such as during Elizabeth Smart’s abduction and abuse, it’s framed by the narrative as being a smart and forgiving choice on Annie’s part.** Thus perpetuating the same myths that make it harder for abused children to seek help.

This could have been an interesting and important story about what it’s like to have a mentally ill guardian, about what the industrial prison complex does to families, how one comes to grip with the sins of ones parents, and most of all on the frailities of real people and forgiving adults for being much less than perfect.

That is very much not what this book is about. That’s the story that begins after this books ends, when Annie starts visiting her father in prison and her brother refuses to go along. That’s the reality, that’s the nuanced and truly heartbreaking tale that needs to be told. That’s the kind of “written in blood” book that middle grade students deserve. Instead, they get this mess of improbable plots and bad characterization, all adding up to the kinds of myths that perpetuate abuse.

When you read reviews that say that this is a book about forgiveness, remember that the people being forgiven are adults who harm and endanger children. In a book meant for elementary school kids.

*Also, we are supposed to believe that the kid’s mother left simply because she wanted to go and have fun, and that something inside her was broken and doomed to be cruel. Not, you know, that maybe she thought getting out of dodge might be a good idea after her husband murdered the guy she was flirting with.

**No, just NO. Victims certainly have the right to forgive their abusers at any point, but it’s rarely healthy for them to do so before their abuser has STOPPED and begun to take some responsibility for their actions. Yet that’s exactly what we usually encourage them to do. Often via stories like this one.

1 Response to "Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewirtz: A Rant and Review"

[…] I ranted about this book earlier this year.  The short version being that my problem wasn’t so much that Annie was quick to forgive her father, but that the book did an inadequate job of exploring why, and why this might not be the safest choice for her to make.  Also, the backstory about their parents is disturbing in ways that the narrative seems dangerously oblivious to. […]

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