The Sandalwood Tree
By Elle Newmark
PBR Book Review:This is a sweeping story that expertly blends fiction and history as the author weaves together two stories which take place in two tumultuous times in Indian history. One story recounts the events of India’s First World War also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; the other takes place during the 1940’s as British rule was coming to an end in India. The book moves easily between the two periods showing both the similarities and the unique aspects of each. In one story we follow Evie Mitchell and her family as Evie struggles to fix her ailing marriage. It is through her eyes that we see both the British and the Indian perspective on the events that unfold during Partition. The other story is that of Felicity and Adela who lived in the Victorian period, 90 years earlier. Their story is told mostly through letters; it’s compelling with many interesting tid-bits of the era. In both stories, Newmark very nicely captures a country at unrest, drawing the reader in with rich historical details, beautiful relationships and warm believable characters.
Book Club Talking Points: This story examines the Caste system, sexual orientation, religious differences, the idiosyncrasies of the Victorian period especially as it pertains to women and the effects of war on a person’s psyche. It also explores two historically significant events.
*Author Website: http://www.ellenewmark.com/
*Other Books by Same Author: “The Chef’s Apprentice”, “The Book of Unholy Mischief”
1. The Sandalwood Tree begins with a quote from Adela Winfield: “Death steals
everything but our stories.” Later Evie paraphrases this as “Our stories are all we have.” What do you think of this? Do you agree? Do you think our stories
are the only things that last?
2. The novel tells two stories in alternating chapters, both set in the same home
90 years apart. Did you prefer one storyline or set of characters to the other?
Did you find one more interesting or compelling? Why?
3. Evie says, “If you understand the lunatic nuances in keeping up appearances,
you’ll understand why I spent an insane amount of time fighting dust and
dirt in India.” and later, “I couldn’t fix our inside, so I fixed our outside. I
vanquished dirt and disorder wherever I found it, and felt better, for a while.”
Do you think Evie’s impulse to control what she can in order to compensate for
the things she cannot is a typical human reaction? What do you think she gains
and loses by focusing on these outward problems instead of the real ones?
4. The British characters often mock the Indians’ superstitions throughout the
novel. Is Evie’s need for order a superstition in itself? Do you think there’s a
difference between her need for order and the natives’ need for their rituals?
Are they driven by the same impulses and desires?
5. One of the major themes of The Sandalwood Tree is the resilience of the Indian
people. When Evie first arrives in India, she says “I wanted to… ferret out the
mystery of [India’s] people. I wanted to know how India managed to hang on
to her identity in spite of multitudes of foreign conquerors slogging through
with new gods and new rules.” What did you think of this ability to “bend
without breaking.” Do you think it’s universal to human nature? Unique to the
Indian people? Something developed over time out of necessity?
6. Evie says, “Denial is the first refuge of the frightened, and it works, for a
while.” What does this quote mean to you? Do you agree with Evie? Where in
the novel do the characters choose denial over facing reality? Does it help or
7. Elle Newmark uses foreshadowing throughout the novel, hinting at things to
come. Evie says of Billy’s stuffed dog, “I wouldn’t have taken Spike away even
if I’d known the trouble the toy was going to cause later. But nobody could
have seen that coming.” What other instances of foreshadowing did you notice?
8. Evie and Martin speak the same language, but they barely communicate. Yet
Evie is able to make herself understood with her students, servants, and the
shopkeepers she meets throughout her day using limited language and body
movements. For much of the novel, Adela and Felicity can communicate only
through letters, and later Felicity and Jonathan communicate through their
poetry. What do you think this says about communication? Do you think if the
intent is there, someone can always get his or her point across?
9. Felicity and Adela live in a time where a woman had very few choices, and
society had very specific expectations of them. In spite of these, they manage
to carve out nontraditional lives, vowing to “scrap the rules and live a life of
joy, no matter what the price.” What do you think makes them different from
the other women of the era, able to make these choices? Do you think the price
they paid for those choices was too high?
10. Throughout The Sandalwood Tree there is a huge dichotomy between the rich
foreigners, with their servants and extravagance, and the abject poverty of so
many of the natives. Did this disparity bother you? Do you think it’s inevitable
that there be such a difference between classes?
11. The love affairs in the novel were all scandalous for their time: the interracial
relationship between Jonathan Singh and Felicity, Adela’s lesbianism, Martin
and Evie’s inter-faith marriage. What does it say about the characters that they
were all able to defy expectations and conventions? Did you find their decisions
12. Evie says, “In 1945 they called it combat fatigue, but in World War One they
had called it shell shock, which is more accurate. After Vietnam they started
calling it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Stress? Please. The names for this
mental illness became more sanitized with every war.” Martin is carrying
serious scars from his time in the war, and as a result closes Evie out and starts
taking dangerous risks in his work. Do you think a person ever completely
heals from seeing the atrocities of war? Do you think enough is done to care for
veterans when they return?
13. Evie refers to India as a “spiritual carnival complete with sideshows.” The
religious practices, divisions, and biases of the characters are a major theme
in The Sandalwood Tree. Do you think it’s possible for conflicting faiths to live
in harmony, or is the war in the name of religion that plagues human history
14. Most of the British families in the novel have travelled to India only to recreate
their lives at home, down to the same shops, food, and traditions. Why do you
think this is? Do you think this is a reasonable way to create a comfortable
environment for themselves, or a waste of an opportunity to experience
something different? Do you think this insistence on holding on to their
lifestyles is driven more by arrogance or fear?
15. Martin cannot forgive himself for the things he did, and didn’t do, during
wartime. It is not until he tells Evie what happened, and she forgives him, that
he can begin to forgive himself. Do you think Martin would be able to find any
peace with his memories if he hadn’t shared them with Evie? Or do you think
it’s only by not holding on to secrets that people can begin to get over them?
16. Felicity’s pregnancy out of wedlock must be hidden, and Evie has to drop out of
college when she becomes pregnant. “In 1941 pregnant women simply didn’t
belong in school; they barely belonged in public.” Do you think our society’s
feelings toward pregnancy and childbirth have changed dramatically, or do you
think there’s still a stigma attached to pregnancy in some ways, say to unwed
mothers or pregnant women in positions of power or authority?
17. Harry quotes Gandhi as saying, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” What
do you think of this statement?
Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group - April 2011 - 368 pages- ISBN 1416590595|
A sweeping novel that brings to life two love stories, ninety years apart, set against the rich backdrop of war-torn India.
In 1947, American historian and veteran of WWII, Martin Mitchell, wins a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. His wife, Evie, convinces him to take her and their young son along, hoping a shared adventure will mend their marriage, which has been strained by war.
But other places, other wars. Martin and Evie find themselves stranded in a colonial bungalow in the Himalayas due to violence surrounding the partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. In that house, hidden behind a brick wall, Evie discovers a packet of old letters, which tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the same house in 1857.
Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to piece together her Victorian mystery. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, Martin's dark secret is exposed, unleashing a new wedge between Evie and him. As India struggles toward Independence, Evie struggles to save her marriage, pursuing her Victorian ghosts for answers.
Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Calcutta and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love