BookBlast® reviews Peirene No. 23 The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay: a novel which explores resilience, human relations and survival even in the face of the horror of war and ethnic and religious conflict.
UNICEF estimates that child soldiers are currently employed in thirty conflicts around the world. How are they swept up into a life of violence and used as instruments of war? 
“Ahmed and Aziz found their grandparents in the ruins of their house. Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed in by a beam. Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared.”
The Roots of War
Since the British government issued the Balfour declaration sanctioning the future of Zionism in Palestine in 1917, the gun has become the Palestinian birthright. During the 1938-9 Palestinian uprising, the British used terror to fight terrorism. In the course of Israel’s creation in 1948, with large numbers of Holocaust survivors arriving from Europe, and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, more than half the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine are said to have been displaced.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a poisonous quagmire of atrocities and distorted perceptions with bombs, hate and deep trauma passed on from one generation to the next. “We can never forget and we can never give up” could be the mantra of either side. As David Brooks writes in The New York Times, “Now the surrounding region is a cauldron of convulsive change, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a repetitive Groundhog Day.”
Peasant life has continued, one way or another, in the shrinking Palestinian Territories, even with the advent of The Wall. Fields need to be ploughed, oranges and olives harvested. Homes and land and livelihoods require protection. The arid desert soil blooms, along with a deeply-rooted desire for revenge.
“Listen carefully, Zahed. In nearby villages other houses have been destroyed. Many people have died because of missiles and bombs. Our enemies want to seize our land. They want our land to build their houses and make their wives pregnant. After invading our villages they will advance on a big city. They will kill our women. Enslave our children. And that will be the end of our country. Our earth will be soiled by their steps, by their spittle. Do you believe that God will allow this sacrilege? ” so says Soulayed – “a pious man. An educated man.” He will “pray for the salvation of the souls” of Shahina and Mounir killed by the bomb from the other side of the mountain, now buried in the family orange grove.
Soulayed asks Tamara and Zahed to give up one of their twin boys so he can carry out a suicide mission and blow up a military installation. They are told it is an honour and a duty to do so. Ahmed is chosen to wear a belt of explosives. He will become “a real soldier.” “We live every day in fear that it will be our last. We don’t sleep very well and when we do sleep nightmares stalk us. Entire villages are destroyed every week. Our dead grow in number. The war gets worse, Ahmed. We have no choice . . .” says Zahed as he prepares his son.
But Aziz has a terminal illness so Tamara asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place, unbeknownst to Zahed. Aziz becomes Ahmed, and Ahmed becomes Aziz.
Tamara is both miserable and very angry with Soulayed. “What’s the point of bringing children into the world if it’s just to sacrifice them like poor dumb animals being sent to the slaughterhouse!”
Tamara’s sister, Dalimah, lives in America and writes in her letters home that she is happy as there is no war. For Zahed, his sister-in-law is dead. She and her engineer husband are branded the enemy since “he’d fled to America. To gain acceptance there he’d recounted horrors and lies about their people.” Her husband’s friends will slaughter them sooner or later.
The twin who is left behind after his brother dies a martyr goes to America. Dalimah’s husband verifies with journalist friends what had actually happened: arrogant, abusive Soulayed had lied. The target base on the other side of the mountain was a refugee camp. The motivation behind choosing the real target of the mission was driven by the sentiment, “If our children are not sacrosanct, neither are theirs.”
Safe now, Ahmed trains to be an actor. He carries a country around inside his head, “all the voices in his head want to be heard, and not just as ghosts in my head.” He helps his drama coach, Michael, with the play for the graduation show by recounting what happened and its aftermath. In doing so he manages to find peace and forgiveness.
Neither side in the Arab-Israeli war seems particularly keen to end the violence, or find a long-term solution to conflict; not helped by continued international interference and self-interest. Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay | Peirene Press, East and West Series | June 2017 £12 140pp PB | ISBN: 978-1-908670-36-6 | eISBN 978-1- 908670-37-3
 see article How Do Children End Up as Child Soldiers? by Esha Chhabra
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