'The Iguana Tree': Field workers’ stories leave politics in the dirt

Michel Stone grew up among farmers in South Carolina’s low country, among people rich in land though not necessarily money.

“They don’t have two nickels to rub together but they have land that developers would pay millions for,” Stone said.

Like many farmers across the country, they raised crops harvested by undocumented workers willing to work hard for not a lot. Stone, who right up front declares herself a centrist, wasn’t interested in the immigration status of the husband and wife she met on one of her visits back home a few years ago. She was interested in their stories and those of the other field workers: the harrowing tales of crossing into this country from Mexico, their reflections on hard work and living in a shadow society in plain sight of those who depended on their labor.

Just as compelling were the relationships that had been built between the landowners and the workers. The lines between the two classes had blurred a bit into something that, to Stone, seemed to approach friendship.

“It was real and you could tell it when you observed them,” Stone said. “People were people, not really thinking about politics. Sometimes politics seem to blind us, whether you are on the far left or the far right, and sometimes people so much tow the party line that they forget the humanness of a situation.”

That humanity is what Stone has explored in her well-received debut novel, “The Iguana Tree,” (Hub City Press, $24.95). It was released two months ago and is already in its third printing. Stone will read from her book on Tuesday at the DeKalb County Public Library auditorium in downtown Decatur. Accompanying her will be Ron Rash, who will read from his new novel, “The Cove.”

Stone’s novel joins the ever thickening body of fiction and nonfiction about the experience of illegal immigrants in the United States. At the center of her lyrical novel is a young family that has decided to leave Oaxaca state in Mexico to try for more opportunity in the United States. Just as her characters dance between melancholy and hope, in telling their story Stone tries hard not to settle into any political camp. This is a story about a mother, a father and their daughter and the costs they pay as they chase a dream. It’s told with tremendous grace.

Stone was a schoolteacher and a varsity girls basketball coach in Spartanburg, S.C., when she began the novel as a short story eight years ago. She’d been given an assignment in a writing workshop to write about an object she knew very well, then transport the object into another part of the world.

The mother of three had just had her second child so she chose a rocking chair. In it she put a young mother nursing her newborn in a shanty.

Once the workshop was over, Stone realized the mother’s story was not.

“As she’s rocking her baby in the middle of the night, what does she hear outside her window, what are her fears, where is that baby’s father?” Stone said. “So at the end of that weekend workshop I was hooked. I didn’t want to abandon that young mother.”

That humanity courses through “The Iguana Tree.” For the next few years Stone traveled to a tiny coastal town in Oaxaca that became her fictional Puerto Isadore along the Pacific. While the experiences of the couple in the novel are not the same as those of the couple she met on the Lowcountry farm, they helped Stone imagine the journey her fictional couple would have taken. She also read nonfiction accounts of illegal Mexican immigrants to learn about the treacherous world of the coyotes, or smugglers, that bring people across the border. News accounts informed her description of those who die in the attempt and of the peril children face along the way.

Handling dialogue presented a different challenge. Stone’s Spanish is passable, but not enough to write in it. So she handled speech this way: When the Mexican characters speak to each other, they speak fluently in English. But when they speak to Americans with poor Spanish skills, the Mexican characters speak with halting, broken English. In another writer’s hands this approach could come off as clumsy, if not offensive. Yet Stone makes clear that the struggle to communicate works both ways: The American characters speak loudly to the immigrants when they are trying to explain something, as if raising the volume will improve the immigrants’ cognition.

“Having spent time with the people who are here and who are learning to speak English, I listened to them talk and I trained my ear to get a sense of sound and rhythm,” Stone said. “It was important to me to get it right.”

The couple who told her their stories on that South Carolina farm eight years ago are no longer there. The wife returned to Mexico on her own, homesick for her town and her family. Her husband returned when it was discovered that he was in the country illegally and he left before he could be deported, Stone said.

She does not talk to them anymore. But she remembers the hope they had for their future, the same sense of hope she has laced through her novel.


Author appearance

Michel Stone reads from her novel “The Iguana Tree,” and author Ron Rash reads from his novel “The Cove,” in an event sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.

7:15 p.m. Tuesday. Free. DeKalb County Public Library auditorium in the downtown Decatur branch, 215 Sycamore St. 404-370-8450, www. georgiacenterforthebook.org.

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