Adina Rishe Gewirtz gives us a slow start to her debut novel, “Zebra Forest,” but it gradually becomes more intense and keeps us in suspense until the mystery makes sense.
Although “Zebra Forest” is not a classic mystery, Gewirtz certainly lets us in on the danger of holding on to family secrets.
Because living is so boring in the small town of Sunshine, it’s much more fun for Annie, 11, and her younger brother, Rew, to make up stories and act out scenes from “Treasure Island” while exploring the area they call Zebra Forest.
This is a forest where they can escape and apply their imagination. It consists of rows and rows of white birch and chocolate oak. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting where anyone could dream the days away. For Annie and Rew, this forest serves as a kind of hideout, so simple for them to not be seen and not be bothered with worries about their past.
The children are cared for by their “Gran,” who coaches them on how to lie and to lie well. Gran has her moments of outbursts and a decline in mental function, but she is the only family these children have. She is a mystery to begin with. One moment, Gran can be talkative as a parrot, and the next moment she won’t say a word. She has a tendency to keep to herself and will stay upstairs in her room for hours, even days.
It turns out that Annie and Rew learn a lot from Gran. She is all the education they need. Therefore, the kids do not attend school on a regular basis, and all three make up excuses to the social worker who pops up at their door, checking out the whole situation. Readers might get a chuckle out of ole Gran. She is sharp and does not like snoopers. The social worker is so ridiculously gullable.
Gran has her own secrets. She doesn’t always tell the truth. It’s natural for Annie to inquire about her father. Gran tells the kids that their father was an angry man who got into a fight and died. What’s more, she informs them that their mother ran off, never to be seen again.
One of Annie’s three wishes for the summer is to meet her father, though sadly she realizes this wish will never come true. But she embraces the dream anyway. Gewirtz appears to empathize with Annie as she writes:
“As for my third wish, I’m not even sure why I kept making it. But when you’re in second grade, you don’t yet know the meaning of impossible. And since I liked that wish best of all, I couldn’t bring myself to change it, even as I grew old enough to know better.”
Everything within this family changes dramatically when an escaped fugitive keeps Gran and the kids hostage. Naturally, the children try to be brave but they are afraid of this fugitive. Rew wants him gone, but eventually Annie goes against her brother who’s in a rage. Annie starts to listen to the man’s stories and becomes more and more interested in his background. In a sense, she is the one who first gives him a second chance.
Gewirtz is mainly writing about forgiveness in “Zebra Forest.” It’s also a novel about feeling family shame. Sometimes lying might be the only means to protect a family. Most people tell a lie or two, maybe more, in their lifetime, possibly hoping that no one will be hurt or blamed. In this novel, Annie and Rew had no other way to learn about the truth about their father and mother. They had to rely on make-believe and stories of adventure for them to form a picture or an “image” of who their parents were and why the two siblings ended up in Gran’s care.
Piecing together everything that relates to finding one’s identity can be a long and painful lesson.
In general, teachers might be able to incorporate “Zebra Forest” into their curriculum. Depending on what children find appealing to read also will depend on whether Gewirtz’s novel will keep their curiosity going. This novel might be a plus for parents and children to discuss or share viewpoints.
The paperback edition of “Zebra Forest” was to have been released in February of this year.Interestingly, Gewirtz has served as a writing coach and is the editor of “Escape Velocity, A Post-Apocalyptic Passover Haggadah,” written by Stanley Aaron Lebovic, which offers readers insights into the basic story of Judaism and the Jewish culture.