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The Upas Tree: A Christmas Story for All the Year

The Upas Tree may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

Since I have become the de facto Christmas story reviewer for Girlebooks, I drew The Upas Tree as an assignment. Unlike the other Christmas stories I have reviewed, however, one hears very little about snow and sleigh bells, carols and plum pudding in this story. A traditional tree does make its way into the story towards the end, but it plays second fiddle to another tree, dubbed the “Upas Tree.”

The Upas Tree, legend has it, is an African tree that alters the psyche when one sleeps under it, as protagonist Ronnie West did when doing experiential research for his next romance novel. As a result of this indiscretion, Ronnie became somewhat manic, confused, sleepless and, according to his wife, Helen, “utterly, preposterously, altogether selfish.” This strange tree and additional elements, such as 13 foot-tall African grasses, a purloined letter, a Cello with a life of its own and a mirror that doesn’t quite reflect what it observes, turn The Upas Tree into the strangest Christmas story I have yet read: part detective story, part ghost story, and an unusual love story. In spite of its oddity, or perhaps because of it, The Upas Tree is also a compelling read, Christmas or no.

Protagonists Helen and Ronnie West live an idyllic existence on Helen’s ancestral country estate where Ronnie has penned some lovely romantic novels whose commercial success have made him a well-known author and have fueled his ambition for further glory. This time, however, he has a different locale in mind: central Africa. Although it pains Helen and Ronnie to be parted—Helen has her own reasons for not following him—they agree that it would be the best thing for him and his career if he went. On their last night together, Ronnie, who has a natural talent for music, serenades Helen with piano tunes. Then they part for seven months.

When Ronnie returns, he does not appear to be the same Ronnie who left all those months ago, much to Helen’s consternation. On his way home, Ronnie makes a stop in Leipzig to purchase an organ for a church Helen is helping to build. Since Helen’s cousin lives in Leipzig, Ronnie stays for a visit before returning to England. In the music store where he purchased the organ, Ronnie is smitten by a violoncello, about which he obsesses to anyone who will listen. Helen is put out with him when he returns, not only for his rapt attention to the cello, but because he apparently ignored the life-changing news that she sent him in a letter to Leipzig.

The reader, of course, knows from whence the mystery comes and can only watch helplessly as a grim comedy of errors takes place until Christmas Eve, when Ronnie and Helen’s upside-down world begins to right itself in a most Christmas-like way.

Cover art by Janice Tarver, for sale at Etsy.


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