Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen

This book is set in Guatemala in the 1980’s during the time of the civil war, a time of genocide for the indigenous population.  The main character, Gabriela, is a real person.  This story (with her name changed to protect her) is based on interviews Mikaelsen had with her.  
Gabriela grew up in a small Mayan canton in the high mountains of Guatemala surrounded by her family and friends.  The trees in the forest outside her village were her refuge and solace. She loved climbing them and spent so many hours in them that she acquired the nickname Tree Girl. This ability would later save her life.
Gabi was the only child in her family sent to school to learn to read and speak Spanish, and more importantly, to learn to think. While she was growing up, her community was mildly troubled by conflict between the guerillas and government soldiers asking them to tell about the actions of the other. They continued about their business hoping they would be ignored.  
It was not to be.
Following her mother's death, Gabriela took on more responsibility for her family. After a journey to the larger center to sell their produce, she returned to discover that government soldiers had massacred her entire community. She found her sister, Alicia, and injured brother, Antonio, hiding in the forest, and fled with them. Antonio died shortly afterwards.
Desperate to find food for them, Gabriela entered a village just prior to the arrival of government soldiers. She climbed into a tree in the middle of the square and hid while they brutally humiliated and slaughtered the residents.  Afterwards, unable to find her sister, she set out on her own for Mexico, always searching for them.
Eventually she reached a refuge camp. Life in the refuge camp was not easy, but in it Gabriela began to recover from the trauma she experienced and find the goodness in herself again.

I finished this book thinking of the recent hype around The Hunger Games. In The Hunger Games, the heroine, Katniss, has to fight for survival in a dangerous, futuristic, but fictional world. In Tree Girl, the heroine, Gabriela, has to fight to survive in the very real world of Guatemala in the 1980's. It is not for the faint of heart. The brutal, casual violence is far more horrific than that in The Hunger Games, because the indifferent rape, torture and murder of approximately 200,000 people is not fiction.

There are two powerful themes that intertwine throughout this book.  On the one hand we see and experience vicariously the human capacity for evil. On the other we see and experience the human capacity for hope and goodness.
Perhaps these themes are also articulated in The Hunger Games, but the authenticity of them in Tree Girl forces the reader into a profoundly different awareness of what it means to be human. It also forces the reader into taking a closer look at the real world that we all share. My first reaction after finishing this book was to go in search of more information about the Guatemalan conflict.  A simple google search revealed that the Indigenous peoples’ struggle in Guatemala is far from over.  I’m still pondering what I will do about it.  Doing nothing is not an option.