Fruit of the Drunken Tree
A rich girl, poor girl account of late twentieth century Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a staggering emotional journey through the destruction of life in a time of war. It will give you a new perspective on why some people risk it all to come to America.
Someone you’ve never met can dominate your entire existence. Such is the case for Chula Santiago and Petrona Sanchez, who are growing up in the Colombia controlled by Pablo Escobar and his cohorts. Thirteen-year-old Petrona once lived on a struggling farmstead, but when the paramilitary came, they burned her home to the ground, took her father and two oldest brothers to work for them and left Petrona to care for her asthmatic mother and huge brood of younger siblings. They walk to Bogota, where Petrona takes a job as a maid to the Santiago family in order to make ends meet.
Seven-year-old Chula is fascinated by Petrona, who speaks little, dresses oddly and is so different than anyone Chula knows. Theirs is a household of women; Chula’s father, an oil worker, is away from home for months on end and it is only the maid, her mother and her sister Constance that Chula spends time with. Much of that time is spent watching television, where the name Pablo Escobar is associated with everything from car bombs to murdered politicians. It is this last thing which truly has an effect on Chula for she is at the rally where the popular liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán is assassinated. Escaping that event is a nightmarish experience and the news following it only seems to grow worse and worse. As Chula hears of children dying while their parents tried to buy tickets to the circus, and as Petrona sees the young boys in her neighborhood turn into violent thugs, both girls start to realize that no future is guaranteed in a land where walking to the grocery store is a perilous undertaking that can be interrupted by gun fights.
Chula is a difficult narrator; young, spoiled and traumatized, her perspective on coming of age during a reign of terror is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it cuts through any romantic association one might have regarding what was happening. On the other, her immaturity sometimes undermines the serious, horrific nature of the events surrounding her. She is also a strong argument for vigilant parenting: left to her own devices far too often, she made poor choices that could have been circumvented had some adult wisdom been applied.
Petrona introduces only a slightly different perspective. While more mature and less sheltered than Chula, she too makes some unwise choices. She and her family live in a “hut made of trash” in the Hills (Bogota’s slums) and serve as easy prey for encapotados (guerillas), drugs, and the more benign but no less dangerous common criminals. Her father told her that it was “better to sleep alongside your own clean conscience than to be a parasite of the state or of the militarized groups who were all just a different version of the state.” He encouraged her to earn what she had with “the sweat of her brow.” However, not working with these peoples is not an option she’s given. It is death or cooperation. When she becomes involved with the handsome Gorrión, she finds just how high a cost that cooperation demands.
Which is the point of Fruit of the Drunken Tree. For those living in that turbulent era, there were no good options. Wealth delayed the inevitable; it didn’t circumvent it. You were either the kidnapped or the kidnapper, killer or prey. Neutral parties got blown up in car bombs or shot in crossfire. It makes for a very thought provoking read, if not a very easy one.