In an interview, Ingrid Rojas Contreras said of her debut novel, “I hope to complicate our understanding of the inheritance of violence and how this affects women and girls living in it or surrounded by it.” If that was the goal, Rojas Contreras surpassed it.
Her book, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” begins with a photograph 15-year-old Chula Santiago receives in the mail that troubles her. The photo is of Petrona, a young woman who had been a maid in her family’s household before they were forced to flee Colombia.
Petrona is holding a newborn baby in the photograph, with a young man Chula recognizes by her side. By the date stamp on the back of the photo, Chula realizes the baby was conceived the month her family left the country. Chula is horrified by the young man’s presence in the photo; she thinks, “I know what he’s done.” The photo serves as a mystery that immediately pulls the reader in.
The novel then goes back in time to 1989, at the height of Pablo Escobar’s reign. Chula is 7 years old, living in a gated neighborhood in Bogotá with her parents and her older sister, Cassandra. She doesn’t understand much of what’s going on, but she’s still profoundly affected by it. A car bomb goes off in Bogotá, killing a young girl. Chula is horrified by what she sees on TV: the girl’s leg, severed from her body, still wearing a red shoe. All of the news reports blame Pablo Escobar.
Chula’s trauma doesn’t end there, but Petrona, who begins working for the family when she’s 13 years old, has a hand in what is perhaps the most traumatic event of all. Over the course of two years, Chula comes to view Petrona as a friend, and nothing can prepare her for the girl’s betrayal. But Petrona is forced to make a choice that really isn’t a choice at all. She sees herself as her family’s provider and protector; she lives in a slum overrun with guerrilla soldiers, and she may have fallen in love with one…
The book starts a bit slow, but before long I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with one of the early passages, when Chula recounts what it was like trying to make a new life abroad:
“We were refugees when we arrived to the U.S. You must be happy now that you’re safe, people said. They told us to strive for assimilation. The quicker we transformed into one of the many the better. But how could we choose? The U.S. was the land that saved us; Colombia was the land that saw us emerge.”
I also enjoyed the fact that the story is primarily told from a child’s perspective, but every so often, a chapter ends with Petrona’s point of view. This alternating narration contributes to the sense of building conflict that kept me turning the pages. It also highlights the way Chula and Petrona’s lives become intertwined: when one girl is saved, the other is put in danger.
Rojas Contreras seamlessly blends fact and fiction. If you read this book, don’t miss the author’s note at the end—you might be surprised by how much of the story was influenced not only by historical events, but also by the author’s own life.
Reviewer Adison Godfrey is a graduate assistant at WPSU.