The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
I have a fondness for debut novels. There's something about a feeling of discovery. A debut novel has so many possibilities. There are no preconceived notions as to what the author will tell us or how the story will unfold. Courtney Miller Santo's debut, The Roots of the Olive Tree, slowly reveals the lives of five generations of women in the Keller family, a group of women living together in a house near an olive grove in Kidron, California. No one keeps secrets from each other as women do, nor supports each other in unexpected ways. No one fights and loves as women do who are related. And, put them together in one house, and all those possibilities for secrets, and destruction, and love are magnified.
Anna Keller is 112 at the beginning of the book, and she wants to be the oldest person in the world. She lives in Hill House in the Sacramento Valley with her daughter, Bets, who is 90, and her granddaughter, Callie, who runs the family store, The Pit. Callie's daughter, Deb, is in prison for killing her husband. It's Deb's daughter, Erin, and Callie who turn the Keller world upside down that year. Erin shows up with a plan to get her mother paroled. And, Callie reaches out to a scientist who is interested in investigating this family of firstborn women, checking their genes to discover the secrets to their longevity.
The olive trees in the Keller family were grafted from trees that Anna's father brought from Australia. And, those grafted trees were important to the growth and success of the community in Kidron. And, it was similar secrets and roots that led to the longevity of the Keller women. The Roots of the Olive Tree is not just a story of women who remain healthy late in life. It's a story of family secrets, and who can keep a secret, and what secrets are important.
Most of all, The Roots of the Olive Tree is a story that shows that all women, no matter how closely related, are individuals with individual dreams and lives. Santo allows each woman to have a section of the book to tell her story, to tell of her life and fears and passions. Some of the stories are richer than others, but they combine to form a strong family history as revealed in the final chapter, an eloquent fable told by the oldest child in the sixth generation.
The women in this book are all fascinating. My personal favorite is Anna, the matriarch who presides over the family and witnesses the changes that occur in that momentous year. But, every reader may find a woman to appreciate. The idea for Courtney Miller Santo's novel came from her own family, five living generations of females in the matriarchal line. I'll admit, it might have been a richer story if there had been more development of one woman or another. I wanted more personality from some of the women. Some characters were deeper, and more intricately created than others. But, it's not easy to bring five women to life in a book, and allow each of them to have a say.
Courtney Miller Santo's debut, The Roots of the Olive Tree, is an engrossing story that reveals how past lives influence future generations, not just genetically. Genes are just the device used to tie the story together. It's a strong, promising debut, a novel that offers hope for future living characters and future stories.
I have been a library manager/administrator for over 30 years, in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, now, Indiana. Winner of the 2011 Arizona Library Association Outstanding Library Service Award. I am a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery Readers Journal, ReadertoReader.com and VibrantNation.com. Winner of the 2009 and 2010 Spinetingler Awards for Best Reviewer. First Fan Guest of Honor for Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Write Now! Conference.
It's an honor to be asked to review books, and I'm grateful to all the publishers, publicists, and authors who send me books. Thank you. Reviews will appear on my blog if I've had a chance to read, and finish, the book. If I do not finish a book, I won't review it, and I will not respond to emails asking when, or if, I'll be reviewing a book.
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My Oct. 19, 2009 blog provides full disclosure that I only receive review copies of books, with no other compensation. All review copies are marked as such. If there any any questions, please feel free to contact me.