The Syringa Tree takes place in South Africa, with most of the action happening during the 1960's. As with much of the fiction that I've read recently, I feel that if I knew more about the background of this time and place in history, I would have gotten more out of the book. But learning about this time period from a young girl provided a very interesting picture. The main character is little Elizabeth Grace, who is six when the story begins. She is white, but of mixed heritage (Jewish, English Catholic, and Afrikaans), and she first learns of prejudice from her next door neighbor, the pure-Afrikaans (and proud of it) Loeska. Elizabeth realizes that she and her family are privileged, yet they are still treated with disdain by their Afrikaans neighbors. Salamina, Elizabeth's nanny, is Xhosa, and as things get worse politically in Johannesburg, the Grace family must protect Salamina. She is pregnant, and they know that she will not be allowed to keep her child with her in Johannesburg. All blacks must have permits showing they are allowed to work in Johannesburg, and a child would not have such a thing.
The story moves forward rather jerkily through time. The story finishes when Elizabeth is an adult, but most of the story does take place when she is between the ages of six and ten. Her relationship with Salamina and her daughter Moliseng is the central piece of the story, and the defining factor of her existance. She blames herself for the difficulties that arise as things get worse in Johannesburg, even though she has no control over the situation. The resolution that comes when she is an adult is the most moving part of the book. I felt that the rest of the book was just leading up to it. It is lovely and satisfying, and slightly heart-breaking. This book is worth reading just for that, and for someone who knows more about that time in South Africa, the book will have even more meaning and depth.