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The Syringa Tree Reader’s Guide

By Pamela Gien

The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The novel is set in South Africa during the time leading up to apartheid. The story is told from the point of view of a six-year-old girl for most of the novel. How does this affect the way you perceive the situation in South Africa?

2. Lizzy thinks, even before Moliseng is born, that it is her dire responsibility to protect and save her loved ones. She literally thinks her mother is “kept alive by her exceedingly good behaviour.” Why has she come to believe that her actions and thoughts will direct the fates of others?

3. Both Eugenie and Salamina are maternal with Lizzy. How are Lizzy’s relationships with them similar, and how are they different?

4. Family is a major force in Pamela Gien’s story. How does Lizzy understand and how does she feel about her mother, her father, and her grandfather? How does she understand/feel about Salamina and Moliseng? Does Lizzy perceive them to be equal members of the family? Is she aware of any differences?

5. Lizzy is raised by an atheist parent. How do you think this helps or hinders her in her chaotic environment? What of her credo: “Oh no nothing will happen God won’t let anything happen”?

6. Compare Lizzy’s two ‘siblings.’ Moliseng plays a large role at the beginning while John comes to fruition as a character much later in the story. Why do you think this is? Is it significant that she refers to Moliseng as “the speck” and to John by his real name?

7. Why do Lizzy’s parents choose to risk so much by allowing “the speck” to stay at their house?

8. What is the role of Moliseng’s character in the story? Think about her relationship to Lizzy, her social position, and her status in the world. What about Loeska? What is her role in the story? Do Moliseng and Loeska symbolize anything beyond their individual characters?

9. Why does Lizzy want to be friends with Loeska so desperately?

10. Why is the book named after a tree in the Grace family’s back yard? Think about its description in the novel, physical and otherwise, and about trees as symbols in general. Think about what goes on in and around this tree, and the spirituality it evokes.

11. Dr. Milton Bird tells Dr. Isaac Grace that Eugenie’s depression is “unrelated to circumstance.” Do you agree?

12. Why does Lizzy bludgeon the chameleon in her backyard?

13. Why was Grandpa George murdered? Why did the murderer steal Grandpa George’s medals?

14. Why do you think Salamina leaves? Why does she do it secretly, in the night, and not say goodbye?

15. Why does Lizzy finally return to Africa?

16. How does the book’s tone change throughout the novel? What factors provoke the change?

17. The themes of displacement and disappearance surface over and over again in the novel, both on personal and cultural levels. Who really is lost and who is gone? Who is trying to forget and who is forgotten?

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