Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote that during our first forty years we journey outward to find our place in society and during the second forty we journey inward to contemplate our inner world where we can discover the genuine self.
The novel, The Ravenala by Jackie Zollo Brooks (Madagascar 1997–99) is driven by characters who must leave behind some of those they love in order to go on this quest.
The title is taken from the ravenala palm, the so-called “travelers’ tree” found only in Madagascar. A traveler cutting into the palm’s branches can receive a refreshing drink of cool water; one who is lost can follow the ravenala’s alignment, always on an east/west axis. The travelers’ tree becomes a metaphor for the novel, suggesting that traveling refreshes us, often setting us off in a new direction
Among modern male writers, J.M. Coetzee, John Updike, and Philip Roth have written intense novels about aging in the life of a man. But since the days of Colette, there have been few novels that explore the richness of life as women age. Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories, Olive Kitteridge, is a notable exception. Yet, older women often live deeply exciting lives.
The Ravenala is the story of a New England woman and her sisters. Vivian James goes to Madagascar to find her destiny. Then, having found the unexpected freedom to be herself, Vivian discovers another more significant value. Living among the unsophisticated, but very brave Malagasy, Vivian learns to value endurance more than freedom. Years later, Con Bennet, a British economist for the United Nations, becomes a regular visitor to Fort Dauphin, the coastal town where Vivian lives. Their easy friendship shortly turns to love. Con is as easy with this new turn in their relationship as Vivvie is uneasy. Con is years younger than she and he poses a threat to her cherished solitude. Can she sustain a love relationship at her age, given her independent spirit and a determination to live a contemplative life?
Life changes for the two when Vivian receives news that her sister, Laurel, is dying of cancer in the United Sates. Reluctantly, Vivian plans to return home. Con insists on accompanying her. Suddenly she is fearful, knowing her family may threaten all she has achieved by way of independence in Madagascar, not to mention their judgment of her relationship with Con. Returning with Con to the States, Vivvie faces the challenges of aging, sickness, and ultimately death. Beyond these inevitable life changes lie the variety of human ways we deal with them. Aware of her sisters’ fears, jealousies, and self-deceit, Vivvie is brought up short when Con shines a light on her own hidden frailties. It seems Con is a change agent for the whole Posey family. But it is his relationship with Vivian which forms the heart of the novel.
Brooks intends her book for a wide-ranging audience — people who still love reading novels, those who are drawn to stories of families or travel. And for all those readers who are incurably curious about the romantic life.
Brooks who has been writing since childhood has led the checkered life we expect of a writer. She received a B.A. in Drama from Tufts University and spent twenty years as an actress and director before returning to graduate school. She received her Master’s degree from Antioch University and later her doctorate from Harvard University. Brooks was a Teaching Fellow in the Graduate Writing Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was also a University Supervisor, overseeing the teaching practice of Harvard students on their way to being certified English teachers. She taught in the English departments of the University of Massachusetts—Boston, and Wentworth Institute. In 1997, she joined the Peace Corps where she served as an English Teaching Supervisor in Madagascar until 1999. When she returned to America, Brooks took a position at Rockport High School as Director of the Drama Program, coming full circle in her career.
Today she lives and writes full-time overlooking the harbor in Gloucester, MA.