|My Alt-TOB Judging (Sweetland vs. Under the Udala Trees)
I've been VERY busy reading lately. You might have noticed my lack of reviews, but I promise, I have been reading. I'm a member of a group on Goodreads that follows the Tournament of Books every year. This group is very active and has a wonderful array of readers who love to talk and break down literary books throughout the year. Two of the members, Jennifer & Poingu, decided it would be fun to host our very own Tournament of Books (while we wait for this year's list). It has been a blast! The list they came up with is masterful and I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my time then with this great group of people discussing some excellent novels. I also volunteered to be a judge, something I was very nervous and apprehensive about. However, after spending the time reading the books, judging them came naturally and I had so much fun. The two books that came to my hands for judging were, "Sweetland" by Michael Crummey and "Under the Udala Trees" by Chinelo Okparanta. Here is my judging and if you would like to join this awesome group, click here.
Under the Udala Trees Vs. Sweetland
I feel so lucky to get two books that I enjoyed so much. I have to give mad props to Jennifer & Poingu for picking such great books, I know I wouldn’t have picked up some of these. The craziest thing about all of this... the amazing discussions taking place in the group! I think we have quite a special group of book lovers following along with such broad range of opinions (which surprisingly, everyone respects).
Okay, enough gushing about how awesome all of us are… you came to read about “Under the Udala Trees” and “Sweetland”. Moving forward, I will refer to “Under the Udala Trees” as UTX2 since the title makes my fingers all twisted. Where to even start?! Well, one book left me with a broken heart and the other had me punching pillows from so much injustice. I savored the time spent with Sweetland without stopping to analyze much, but with UTX2 I was highlighting passages like it was my job. Let’s just say that my reading experience was very, very different with each book. I could go into the similarities - how both books deal with emotional topics or how both main characters overcome struggles. Or what about the differences? Sweetland is lyrical and poetic while UTX2 is basic but in your face. However, I just don’t think comparing these books is the way to go. Instead, I’m going to break down the books separately because ultimately the winner succeeds on its own merits with no comparison needed.
I’ll start with Sweetland which I found much harder to write about. This book just about broke my heart. You have this older guy, completely attached to this small island ALL of his life and one day the government comes and tries to take it all away. Well, bless his heart, he just refuses to budge and is one of two people left on the island who won’t sell. The island begins to turn on him and slowly he starts to feel the pressure to sign. He doesn’t give in until tragedy strikes and breaks down his resolve. This is where it gets a little strange, everyone leaves the island BUT him. Yes, he signed those papers but did he comply? Nope. What happens when everyone abandons ship and you get left stranded with meager supplies and nobody to talk to? Crazy as a loon. What broke your heart before he signs, only shatters it into a little million pieces once Sweetland chooses to stay behind.
There is something so tragically beautiful to the writing that makes this story feel so alive, makes the characters seem so real. You can see the fog roll over the island, feel the warmth of the dog pressed against your back, hear the echoes of the ghosts who haunt the island. This one is a difficult one to write about, it’s so hard to articulate exactly what had me so enchanted, but I can’t deny the magic.
Under the Udala Trees was a story that felt very familiar at first. We start with a family struggling during the war and what follows reflects the path of any war story; loss, death, fleeing, rebuilding. At first, I did groan a little, “another war story, great”. I feel like I have been worn down by reading so many of these that they’ve become a genre of their own. Very rarely does one come around with a unique take, something that doesn’t follow the formula (which is probably the formula for what REALLY happens during war times - so I can’t really knock that). Thankfully, UTX2 took a different turn and the true reasoning behind this book took form.
After fleeing from their home, Ijeoma’s mother decides to send her to a family friend’s home for safety. Ijeoma meets a girl and begins a friendship that turns into something else. This relationship builds until they take the next step but get caught in the process. Both girls are subjected to Bible studies to convert them and change their mind frame. During this time, we get a glance at what is going on inside Ijeoma’s head and it’s during these moments that the Author shines. Despite her doubts, Ijeoma follows her mother's advice and marries a man (after another relationship with a woman). The husband was a conundrum for me, sometimes he was the perfect example of a gentlemAn but the next chapter has him lashing out at Ijeoma, with a little more oomph than is believable. While the subject at hand is extremely important, I felt the characters and the relationships felt flat. I didn’t believe Ijeoma had any strong connection to any of her “love?” interests.
Despite all of that, my favorite parts of the story had nothing to do the relationships but the way the Author utilized actual verses from the Bible to formulate her message. Yes, the Bible says this… but should it be taken so literal? Maybe there is another message here. The Author even played with religion as a whole, giving some very convincing reasoning as to why religious institutions might have an ulterior motive. The husband tries to relay his thoughts about religion based upon his occupation as a businessman. He states,
“See, I’m a businessman. And if you’re a businessman, than one thing you know is that business is all about gathering as many customers as possible and retaining them. Religion is basically a business, a very large corporation… The Church is the oldest and most successful business known to man, because it knows not only how to recruit customers but also how to control them with things like doctrines and words like ‘abomination’. Bottom line is, take your abomination with a grain of salt.”.
I like the balance she played with in regards to religion and the beliefs people have. She brings up strong points for various arguments on multiple sides.
I was completely emotionally invested in Sweetland and felt more from his actions than I did with Ijeoma. Although her struggle falls under a topic I feel strongly about, I didn’t feel that connection to her character. I also didn’t feel there was a true “love” interest. It felt more like she was just starting to discover her sexuality - and in doing so met whoever happened to be nearby with the same sexual preference as her. Her loss was more about losing her freedom to live a life she wanted to live (if she was true to herself). Sweetland selected the opposite, and because he stayed true to himself, ended up staying on the island with nobody to talk to and very few supplies to live off of. Both of these characters made choices that begat hardship very different from one another, but both teach an important lesson.
The strength of Under the Udala Trees is in the message whereas the strength of Sweetland is the characters and writing. I don’t think UTX2 has a chance of winning when it lacks that strong connection to the readers through the characters, or even pulls them in with the author’s words. I really thought both books had very strong stories. UTX2 might have a stronger, more meaningful message, but Sweetland makes you “feel” more of the story, gives you the punch to the gut, makes you care. I was left a little cold reading UTX2 and because of this, I have to go with my “feels” on this one… Sweetland has my heart and the win.