A WASP IN THE FIG TREE
By Mary Bryan Stafford
Published in 2014 by High River Ranch Press.
Reviewed by Tony Burnett.
Precocious 13-year-old Isabel Martin flees with her mother from an abusive father to the idyllic “Ranch of the Fig Trees” where her expectations meet with harsh reality. She finds both the climate and society of the South Texas ranching community of the 1950s to be less welcoming than she had hoped, though she worships her uncle Atlee Parr, who is both a gentle soul and the patriarch of a wealthy political family.
This finely crafted novel features multiple intricately woven storylines presented with the intimate authenticity of a well written memoir. Foremost, in A Wasp In the Fig Tree, is the questionable workings of the rural political machinery rampant in the middle of the 20th century in Texas. Isabel is thrust by circumstance into facing the possibility her uncles are involved in corrupt election practices. Other storylines include her single mother’s quest for an advanced degree at a time when this was uncommon, the divisive racial restrictions imposed by 1950s society and a budding romantic relationship with a childhood playmate as they reach puberty.
Stafford’s uncompromising prose is both eloquent and colloquial, sometimes bordering on poetic. She crafts her narrative with an economy of words uncommon in literary fiction. The novel is suitable for anyone from middle grade to someone like me who lived through this time in history. It’s a mystery featuring political intrigue, civil rights issues, and an accurate portrait of the politics that boosted Lyndon B. Johnson towards the presidency. Being set in Texas, the novel also features horses, oil wells, cattle, cowboys and corrals, deftly woven into the story like a deep breath of dry desert air. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say the novel ends with a very satisfying twist putting the questions of who is good and who is evil safely to rest.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who would appreciate a spot on analysis of mid-20th-century politics, anyone who loves a good mystery or anyone who can appreciate a coming-of-age story. Stafford’s novel is as big as the West Texas sky and as intense as the lightning in a summer thunderstorm.
Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His poetry and short fiction have been published in national literary journals. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.