The Tree and the Vine

Dola de Jong, Kris­ten Gehrman (trans.)

  • Review
By – June 26, 2020

Les­bian desire — and obses­sion — unfold in late 1930s Ams­ter­dam, in Dola de Jong’s nov­el The Tree and the Vine. First pub­lished in 1954 in the Nether­lands and sub­se­quent­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish in 1961 by Ilona Kinz­er; the nov­el­was reis­sued by The Fem­i­nist Press in 1996 with an after­word by not­ed les­bian lit­er­ary crit­ic Lil­lian Fader­man. Fader­man praised the nov­el­for its devel­op­ment of dimen­sion in the char­ac­ters and pow­er in their sto­ries.” Now, twen­ty-five years lat­er in a dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al land­scape, The Tree and the Vine has been trans­lat­ed by Kris­ten Gehrman.

Bea, the nar­ra­tor, and Eri­ca, her love inter­est, meet through a mutu­al friend; Bea is instant­ly attract­ed to her” and the two become, of neces­si­ty, room­mates in Ams­ter­dam. Eri­ca is a rake, enjoy­ing mul­ti­ple inti­ma­cies with women, includ­ing seri­ous girl­friends, while Bea looks on — tor­tured, con­fused, and unable to claim her desire for Eri­ca or any woman. Bea and Erica’s thwart­ed love sto­ry unfolds as a cat and mouse hunt. Their unex­plored desire fol­lows a tem­plate of les­bian pulp nov­els. Called pulps because of their for­mat — print­ed as mass mar­ket paper­back books on pulp (cheap) paper — and pop­u­lar in the Unit­ed States dur­ing the 1950s, these nov­els fea­tured les­bian char­ac­ters doomed to sui­cide or ref­or­ma­tion into hap­py het­ero­sex­u­als. Some pulp nov­els con­tin­ue to be favorites of les­bian read­ers, includ­ing Ann Bannon’s Bee­bo Brinker chron­i­cles and Patri­cia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (which broke with the tra­di­tion and includ­ed a hap­py end­ing and was adapt­ed recent­ly as the motion pic­ture Car­ol), but many of these nov­els have fall­en into obscu­ri­ty because of their stock char­ac­ters and lack of com­pelling explo­rations of les­bian life for con­tem­po­rary read­ers. The Tree and the Vine, while root­ed in the pulp nov­el tra­di­tion, speaks more pow­er­ful­ly to Dju­na Barnes’s mod­ernist clas­sic, Night­wood, and should appeal to read­ers today. Bea and Eri­ca have the elec­tric chem­istry of Barnes’s Robin Vote and Nora Flood; they are will­ful, reck­less, and ful­ly aware of their pow­er as women.

Bea nar­rates the sto­ry from the safe­ty of her 1950s res­i­dence in the Unit­ed States, but the impul­sive­ness of her younger self per­me­ates the nov­el — with the fail­ure of her abil­i­ty to grasp the plea­sure and dan­ger of a rela­tion­ship with Eri­ca. The repres­sion of les­bian­ism oper­ates metaphor­i­cal­ly in a broad­er sense of denial of the self, and youth­ful igno­rance and regret. Even­tu­al­ly, this hunt for an unsup­pressed sex­u­al­i­ty between the two women yields to a broad­er urgency for escape as the Nazis’s inva­sion of the Nether­lands approach­es and Eri­ca reveals that she is half-Jew­ish. The inter­twined sex­u­al and polit­i­cal intrigue make The Tree and the Vine a tight­ly plot­ted tour de force and a sig­nif­i­cant mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry nov­el, explor­ing les­bian desire and the nature of our shared human condition.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions