The Roving Tree

Written by Elsie Augustave
Review by Sarah Johnson

Augustave’s expressive debut traces a young woman’s search for her cultural and emotional identity. Born in rural Haiti in the late 1950s and adopted by white American parents, Iris Odys is continually drawn back to her natal culture but can only experience it as an outsider working her way back in.

The Roving Tree opens with a mystical sequence reflecting the vaudou religion of the Haitian people. Moments after Iris’s death in childbirth, the loa of fertility grants her a final wish. Iris asks the spirit to record her life story so her daughter will know where she came from.

It begins in the village of Monn Nèg in 1961, when a visiting anthropologist and her husband agree to give five-year-old Iris a better life by raising her as their own in suburban Westchester, New York. Her loving adoptive parents accept her for who she is, but her white schoolmates aren’t always so kind. As a young woman, Iris reconnects with Haitian traditions through her love of dance. When tragedy calls her back to Haiti, she begins piecing her family history together.

Augustave does an exemplary job guiding readers through unfamiliar territory. In ‘70s New York City, in Haiti under the brutal Duvalier regime, and later in Zaire, Iris must adjust to new customs and decide which ones to assimilate and which to discard. Her relatives’ stories, seen in flashback, reveal the class prejudice so prevalent at the time, the long-term effects of slavery, and the African traditions passed down over generations.

Richly evocative of each successive time and place, from colorful scenes of vaudou rituals to political corruption in ‘80s Africa, the novel also tells a universal story of heritage and rediscovery in its depiction of a soul full of passionate yearning. A worthy contribution to modern literature of the African diaspora.