Posted by authorcamilson
Title: The Tree of Life
Author: Dawn Davis
Publisher: Friesen Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Two accidental time travelers explore Canada in 1939 in THE TREE OF LIFE, the first installment in the Tower Room series by Dawn Davis.
As THE TREE OF LIFE opens, Charlotte Hansen and her friend, Henry Jacobs, are hanging out in the old mansion where Charlotte and Leo, her grandfather, live. Henry is there to practice the piano, and Charlotte is waiting for him to finish so that she can supervise his work on a massive school project researching the 1930s. When Leo leaves the house to pick up his friend Gwendolyn Fenton—whom Charlotte does not like—the two eleven-year-olds prepare tea and cookies for the grown-ups’ visit and then rush to the Tower Room. The room is located on the top floor of the mansion. Charlotte is not allowed in the room without permission; but she is headstrong and ignores the directive. After leaving the tray of tea and sweets on the tabletop, Charlotte pulls Henry underneath the table with her.
The children soon hear Gwendolyn telling Leo about a magical brooch from her childhood. Suddenly, a large hand grabs Charlotte, who clutches Henry tightly before the hand thrusts the pair into nothingness. After Charlotte regains consciousness, she and Henry meet the younger version of Gwendolyn, a spoiled force of nature determined to appropriate the brooch her late mother left her brother. The friends learn that they are still in Rose Park, the neighborhood they both call home, but the year is 1939.
As Charlotte and Henry realize that they have traveled backward to move forward, the purpose of their time travel is revealed: Charlotte is there to help Gwendolyn resolve the pain of her past. During the adventure, Henry advocates against the anti-Semitism and racism of that time, and Charlotte learns to look beyond her own desires to help a person in need.
The idea for THE TREE OF LIFE and the Tower Room series came to the author after she attended a centennial celebration at her daughters’ school. “What might happen,” Davis thought, “if two children lived their research instead of simply reading about it? This one step outside the restrictions of time became the foundation for the series.”
As in THE TREE OF LIFE, the next three books will highlight different time periods in Canadian history, with the one constant being the appearance of Charlotte and Henry. Although the children will appear in each book with different names and bodies, they will be easily recognizable as eternal soul mates, and the harbingers of love and connection for those who have stumbled and lost their way.
They needed to work on our outfits for school on Monday.
There was to be a parade in the playground, a decade fashion show parade. Since most of the parents refused to scour the bins at Good Will for appropriate clothing, Henry and Charlotte were the only ones so far who had volunteered. Technically Henry did not volunteer. Charlotte signed his name in invisible ink and was planning on informing him later this afternoon. She would tell Henry that he would get special marks for being in the parade (a lie) because Henry was motivated only by marks. Their grades were already as high as they could go, mostly for bringing in a lot of old junk from Charlotte’s great aunt Dilys’s decaying trunks; printed spun rayon dresses, white nubuck open-toed Cuban-heeled shoes, step-by-step instructions on how to pluck out all your eyebrow hair and draw on fake eyebrows that had a larger arch, one of the first ballpoint pens ever made (1938), a picture of a chesterfield suite in mohair that cost $1.95 at the Adams Trade-in Store Special, and a spring hat with a lilac ribbon purchased at Fairweathers for $2.00 and still in the bag. In reviewing her list, Charlotte found one item to be extremely interesting. In the 1930s, a hat cost more than a chesterfield.
It irked Charlotte that she needed to refer to her lists to remember how many items she had collected because Henry never needed this crutch. He could recite any list, any page of a book, any tiny print on a newspaper, even if he had only seen it once and for less than a second.
That’s because Henry had a condition called eidetic memory bog.
A bog is a swamp, a very damp place where unpleasant things grow and multiply. This was Charlotte’s way of describing the interior of Henry’s skull.
Eidetic memory: an article in a newspaper, a children’s story, musical notes from dingy old manuscripts, the script on a Chinese menu, junk mail forced through the mail slot, recipes, etc. etc. misc., all absorbed, imprinted, collated and filed away for future reference, word perfect. Although Henry denied it, Charlotte believed he had this disease because of his permanently crossed eyes. Therefore his brain was unable to process information the way the brain of a normal person (like Charlotte’s) did by sucking up facts through perfectly aligned eyeballs and expelling it all through the very same portals. Henry’s out-take portals were plugged by all the surgeries he had when he was a toddler, and Charlotte feared that someday Henry’s brain might explode from all the useless information he could not eliminate.
A handful of people knew he had this illness, and Henry utilized it sparingly.
“Because I appear to be blind, I overcompensate by having an unusual ability to retain data that may or may not be useful in the world at large,” Henry once told Charlotte. “Is that so unusual?”
Of course she immediately had to set him a test.
Henry was lounging around on Charlotte’s bed, breathing her air and staring at her ceiling and moving his lips in a really annoying way so she said: “Let me show you something.”
He ignored her for a while but finally cranked his head over to where Charlotte was stitching together a hole in the leg of one of her stuffed animals.
She dropped the dog and held the World Book up to his face.
“Look at this.” She pointed to the section on German wirehaired pointers. She let Henry look at the article for three seconds and then she whisked the book away and sat cross-legged on the end of her bed because Henry was taking up all the middle space.
“What about it?” he asked.
“What kind of dog is a German wirehaired pointer?” Charlotte asked.
“A hunting dog,” he replied immediately.
“How did it come to be?”
“It’s a cross-breed which means the dog was developed by breeding a German short haired pointer with a poodle pointer.”
“And how much does it weigh?”
“About twenty-five kilos.”
“Does it like having its ears scratched?”
“How many times a day do you have to take it out for a walk?”
“What do you do if the dog howls in the middle of the night?”
“How long does it take the average German short haired pointer to devour a bowl of food, and what happens if one freshly cooked pea is buried in the midst of its food?”
“What good does it do you to be able to memorize this anyway?”
“Facts are meaningless,” she said. “Experience is everything.”
“Shut up,” Henry said. “There is only one fact that is significant. I blend in. I get along just fine.”
In fact, Henry did not get along just fine, and if it weren’t for Charlotte, he never would have survived at Rose Park Public School.
For some reason the mere presence of Henry on the playground at school annoyed a few of the boys in the grade five class, the ones who weren’t very bright—Tyler MacKenzie in particular. Tyler invented a few colourful names which he felt best described Henry’s exterior; cross-eyed creep, frogman, slimebucket, and monster boy were a few of the favourites. These insults usually bounced off Henry, drifting into the air like soap bubbles, which then quietly burst, leaving Henry unharmed. He didn’t seem to hear the words directed at him. But once Henry made the mistake of getting in Tyler’s way. He was standing at the southern end of the playground reading a book he had projected onto the wall of the school, the same brick wall Tyler and his friends were using to see who could slam a baseball the hardest.
Henry didn’t know he was in the way because he was not present to the reality of the moment.
He returned abruptly when Tyler stood before him, blocking his view of the wall.
“Hey, slimebucket, we’re playing a game here. Move.”
“Or maybe we could use you as a target and just aim for your nose.” Tyler touched Henry’s nose lightly with his fingertips. “That would be easier to hit than the wall.”
Henry brushed aside the grubby fingertips and stared straight at Tyler.
“Smell,” he said, “is stored in the limbic area of the brain.” His voice was measured and precise. “That’s why whenever I smell dog shit, I think of you…”
“In fact, all our memories and emotions are stored in the limbic area,” Henry told Charlotte five minutes later as they were both hurried off to the nurse’s office. Charlotte got an elbow in her eye trying to defend Henry whose upper lip had been cut right open.
He continued to talk as blood pooled in his mouth.
“The emotional content we all have stockpiled is extremely personal,” he said matter-of-factly, shifting the ice pack from the staffroom freezer to spit in the yogurt jar from the daycare centre. “And everything we possess inside here,” he said, tapping his forehead with three fingers, “is warehoused instantly with no conscious intervention on our part at all.”
So much for blending in.
About the Author
Dawn Davis is a writer living and working in Toronto, Canada. Before becoming a writer, Davis worked as a teacher after completing her education at York University and the University of Toronto.
The Tree of Life is Davis’s debut novel, and the first book in her Tower Room series.
For More Information
Dawn, thanks for being here today. Tell us about you.
I have passed through the tumultuous stages of infancy, childhood, teens, university, career, marriage, children, family commitments and I now find in the later part of my life a freedom I never had the time to experience when I was younger. My days are now my own and I am a part-time student again, studying jazz and classical piano and ballroom dancing for the love of it. I was born in Barrington, Illinois, attended New York University for two years and moved to Toronto at age 19 with the intention of staying for a year or so. Instead I returned to school in Toronto, began to teach, married, had a family and never went back. Toronto has been my home for over 40 years. I love the city, the people, the food, the ravine, and the vibrant artistic community.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
At some point in the early morning my Maine Coon kitten Charlie decides she needs to have her ears, neck and head scratched and flops down on my head. By the time I move her and minister to her needs I am wide-awake and in need of a cup of coffee. I wander downstairs and realize I forgot to take the garbage out the night before. Other small tasks present themselves and before I know it I am fully immersed in the business of the day.
If you could hang out with one famous person for one day, who would it be and why?
I would love to spend a day with Bill Evans although he is no longer alive and such a meeting is near impossible. To watch his fingers on the keyboard, to see him bent over in concentration, to hear him play “I Loves You Porgy” and improvise would be such a great gift. It is not necessary that Bill acknowledge my presence. To sit where I can see him and hear him play is more than enough.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
Two eleven year old children living in downtown Toronto in 1999 are thrust back in time to their own neighborhood 60 years earlier. They soon discover cannot go home until they accomplish a task. They arrive not knowing what the task is or why they have been transported but they recognize immediately that this Toronto is a different city than the one they inhabit, and the threat of another world war is imminent.
Tell us your writing process
I jot down ideas when they come to me and always carry a notebook in my purse. Mostly I hear conversations in my head and I respond by listening. The outline of the book or story appears slowly and when I begin to write I do it very freely to get to know my characters. My first draft is a mess and very difficult to straighten out. This is when the thought: “Why am I doing this?” first appears and it is a struggle to ignore it and carry on.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Writing took hold of me when I was very young and it never let go. It is similar to playing the piano – how can this body and mind produce something so intangible and why on earth does it want to? I have no answer for that except to say that writing takes me, for a while, into a different state of consciousness.
Tell us about your main character:
Charlotte Hansen lives with her grandfather in a crumbling old mansion in downtown Toronto. Her parents died when she was two and Leo is her only family. She is headstrong and inventive but very much a loner since her personality can be abrasive. Her one friend is Henry Jacobs who is near blind and suffers from a condition that Charlotte calls “eidetic memory bog”. Charlotte involves Henry, much against his will, in many dangerous enterprises and when the two journey back in time to 1939 Toronto they find themselves involved in a family crisis and a city on the verge of war.
What are you working on next?
I am working on another time travel book in this series, the departure point the same Tower Room that propelled Charlotte and Henry back in time. This story will be set in Toronto during the 1980’s and in Queeston, Ontario during the War of 1812. The book highlights what happens to Leo, Charlotte’s grandfather, on his first time travel adventure. Charlotte and Henry will also be present. This series looks at the “different bodies/same souls” theory – if such a theory is true, isn’t it reasonable to assume we are always travelling with the people we love and learning lessons which might help us in future lives?
Do you have any special/extraordinary talents?
I like to bake and play the piano. I’m not sure they are talents so much as necessities of existence.
Who are your favorite authors?
Top five? Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Kate Atkinson, John Mortimer, Mordecai Richler
What do you like to do with your free time?
I like to walk, read, dance and sleep.
Tell us about your plans for upcoming books.
I hope to write three more books in the Tower Room series highlighting the travels of Charlotte’s family. I also write comedy sketches and will continue to do this.
Any final thoughts?
I always learn something new about myself when I fill out one of these questionnaires. I am grateful for the opportunity. Thank you.
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