Tree Girl

Tree Girl

4.3 19
by Ben Mikaelsen

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They call Gabriela Tree Girl. Gabi climbs trees to be within reach of the eagles and watch the sun rise into an empty sky. She is at home among the outstretched branches of the Guatemalan forests.

Then one day from the safety of a tree, Gabi witnesses the sights and sounds of an unspeakable massacre. She vows to be Tree Girl no more and joins the hordes of

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They call Gabriela Tree Girl. Gabi climbs trees to be within reach of the eagles and watch the sun rise into an empty sky. She is at home among the outstretched branches of the Guatemalan forests.

Then one day from the safety of a tree, Gabi witnesses the sights and sounds of an unspeakable massacre. She vows to be Tree Girl no more and joins the hordes of refugees struggling to reach the Mexican border. She has lost her whole family; her entire village has been wiped out. Yet she clings to the hope that she will be reunited with her youngest sister, Alicia. Over dangerous miles and months of hunger and thirst, Gabriela's search for Alicia and for a safe haven becomes a search for self. Having turned her back on her own identity, can she hope to claim a new life?

Ages 12+

Editorial Reviews

"Dedicated to the real Tree Girl who . . . shared her story . . . during a long Guatemalan night," this riveting coming-of-age novel chronicles the middle teen years of Gabriela Flores. At fifteen, tree climbing gives her a quiet and private sanctuary until U.S.-trained Guatemalan soldiers surround her village. She escapes two massacres that kill her teacher, schoolmates, and most of her family. Determined to save her sister and a baby whose birth she assists, the fleeing Gabriela seeks food in a pueblo. Soldiers invade it. Climbing and hiding in a tree, she witnesses rape, torture, and murder. Traveling north across the Mexican border, she reunites with her sister and the baby in a refugee camp, where she eventually offers play and schooling to the camp children. Gabriela bonds with a fellow teacher who leaves to join the guerrillas. She decides to follow but discovers that, after almost two years, her new life with a different family compels her to teach and to help others. As with the nonfiction First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (Harper Collins, 2000), this moving and poetic based-on-fact novel explores personal grief and moral responsibility in the face of brutality. As does Mud City (Groundwood, 2003/VOYA April 2004), it presents the challenges of the refugee camp and the pull of national and family roots. With no historical notes, this novel probably requires a reader familiar with international affairs, but it might be emotionally powerful enough to motivate the less experienced to learn more. VOYA Codes 5Q 4P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades10 to 12). 2004, Harper Collins, 240p., and PLB Ages 12 to 18.
—Lucy Schall
To quote the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, March 2004: Mikaelsen writes of events during the bitter civil war in Guatemala in the 1980s, based on a story told to him by a survivor of this war. The narrator, Gabriela, is living in a small Mayan village, attending school nearby, enfolded in a loving family, when disaster strikes. Government soldiers, little more than ragtag thugs, are convinced that the small villages in Gabriela's district are harboring rebels—communists. They murder the schoolteacher and gun down families; in the horror Gabriela escapes by hiding high up in trees. As she makes her way north to a refugee camp, she witnesses further atrocities, again hiding in a tree. At the camp, Gabriela meets a teacher named Mario and together they organize activities for the children in the camp and start a school, but eventually she and Mario face difficult decisions about the future. Mario decides to join the guerillas and return to Guatemala to help the Mayans survive the massacres by the government soldiers. Gabriela is heartbroken to be separated from Mario. The camp is filthy, the supplies are meager, yet Gabriela decides in the end to stay where she is, teaching the children, until there is peace and they can return home to Guatemala. This is a powerful story, told simply, with fierce denunciation of the American government that supports the soldiers committing the massacres. Yet, it is Americans who keep the refugees alive in the camps, supplying food and medicine—not enough, to be sure, but something. The book will have special appeal to American teenagers whose parents came to America to escape those horrible years of civil war in Central America, and to allwith an interest in that part of the world. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2004, HarperTempest, 229p., Ages 12 to 18.
—Claire Rosser
School Library Journal
Gr 6-10-In her remote Guatemalan village, 14-year-old Gabriela is known as Tree Girl for her habit of fleeing to the forest and climbing high to escape the world. When guerrilla warfare comes to her area, her life is changed forever. Soldiers eventually discover the small school she attends, beat and murder her teacher, and shoot the other students. Tree climbing saves Gabi from that massacre, and she is away from home when her village is destroyed and nearly all of her family members are murdered. In the course of her flight north to a Mexican refugee camp, she again hides in a tree while soldiers rape and murder the inhabitants of another village. After arriving at the camp, Gabi cares for two elderly women and her one surviving sister and eventually founds a school. Her concern for others helps her recover from the trauma of her experiences. This is a graphic portrayal of the worst of civil war, based on one refugee's story. The author's anger that the U.S. government trained and supported soldiers who committed such atrocities is clear. Details of Guatemalan life are woven throughout the book, but it lacks the sensory descriptions that would allow readers to visualize the setting. Still, the action moves quickly, and Gabi's courage and determination are evident throughout. Readers not put off by the violence should find this an instructive and satisfying survival story.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Mikaelsen offers a chilling account of the Mayan genocide in Guatemala. Rumors of war and sporadic appearances of soldiers disturb the adults in Gabriela's small cant-n (village). Gabriela wants only to think about her upcoming quincea-era (15th-birthday ceremony) and climbing the trees she loves, but on the night of the party, soldiers steal her brother. The narrative voice falters at the beginning, distractingly full of hindsight, but improves by sounding immediate in the middle. War escalates quickly into rape, torture, and horrifyingly sadistic slaughter, with the peaceful Quiche (Maya Indians) totally at the mercy of Guatemalan soldiers. Gabriela's schoolmates and teacher are shot in front of her; her family and neighbors are murdered and the cant-n burned while she's at market. Escaping with one sister, Gabriela walks north to Mexico and eventually reaches a refugee camp. Lack of any author's note leaves this little-known, decades-long piece of cruel history (which the UN later ruled genocide) in a void. Still, a bitter and crucial story that needs to be told. (Fiction. YA)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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3 MB
Age Range:
13 - 17 Years

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