The Roots of the Olive Tree, by Courtney Miller Santo, tells the story of 112-year-old Anna Davison Keller, taken from her birth mother in Australia, and moved to California by the Davison family. Anna’s father dreamed of olive trees thriving in the Sacramento Valley and building a fortune on its fruits. As he succeeded, generations of Keller women made their home at the Hill House, where Anna lived, including Anna’s daughter Bets, Bets’ daughter Callie, Callie’s daughter Deb, and Deb’s daughter Erin.
Santo’s book is like a series of snapshots into the women’s lives. We learn that Anna wants to be the oldest living person, and scours the newspapers to check on the health of anyone older. Bets’ husband Frank suffers from dementia, and long held secrets they both have are revealed in time. Callie wants to start a new life and sell her Olive Pit roadside store. Deb, imprisoned for the murder of her husband, finally makes parole but has trouble adapting to life at Hill House. Erin, Deb’s daughter, is an opera singer who returns from a European tour pregnant and troubled.
Because of Anna’s advanced age, she is one of a group of supercentenarians studied by scientist Amrit Hashmi, who is seeking to prove his theory that old age is environmental and not genetic, at least for people like Anna. He arrives to interview the family and take DNA for further study. These results reveal family secrets long hidden. And, his involvement sparks a romance with Callie.
The story is not always pleasant to read. Inexplicable angry exchanges and explosive reactions between generations belie a history that isn't described in the book. Because there are so many characters, who seem to get equal attention as story protagonists, the depth of their development may not give the reader a full picture to better understand their motivations. Perhaps this story rings more true to people like the author, who is proud of five living generations in her own family.
The Roots of the Olive Tree was written in 2012 and published by William Morrow.