I have recently returned from a week’s holiday in Orkney. The landscape is beautiful, but there are few trees in it. Trees are amazing: some have been alive for more than 4000 years (the Great Basin Bristlecone); the tallest trees grow to 380 ft (the Sequoia or Redwood). California is the home of both these species.
I have been thinking about trees and how they are used in literature. For example, do you know this poem, published in 1914?
Trees by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast,
A tree that looks at God all day,
A lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair:
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Kilmer, who enlisted in the US Army in the First World War and was killed in action in 1918, draws attention to the significance of trees: as shelter, as evidence of god’s creativity (he was a Catholic), as a living thing, as an enduring thing, and of course as a thing of beauty. Trees in fiction draw on some of the same features, and bring to mind ideas of
- Provider of food
- Slow growth
- Former times
Here are six novels that explore some of these ideas.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
The tree in this long novel describing the coming-of-age of an impoverished young woman of immigrant families, stands for slow growth over the passage of time, and for steadfastness in the face of a hostile environment. The tree and Francie are both persistent and the novel honours this quality.
It’s a long novel, something of a classic and very popular with American troops in the Second World War. You can find my review here.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021)
In this novel the fig tree takes an active part in narrating the story. The island of the title is Cyprus, divided and with a history of recent violence. The fig tree grew on the dividing line, inside a tavern, but has been brought to London by Kostas who devotes his time to keeping it alive, even in North London’s inhospitable winters.
A fig tree is a source of food, and its leaves, traditionally, a source of clothing. In this novel it represents the fragile lives of the island’s inhabitants and diaspora. Loss, death, migration, separation, these are all themes in this novel. Not all readers are convinced by the talking tree, by the way. Here is the link to my review.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp
The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)
Another tree with supernatural powers is found in this late novel by Barbara Comyns. The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. It retells the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable, and the story is told with a feminist slant.
The tree in this novel grows in the garden of the home that Bella has shared with the Forbes, eventually marrying the widowed husband and becoming a step-mother. But happiness is a very fragile thing and Bella nearly loses hers. The link to my review can be found here.
The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp
The Trees by Percival Everett (2021)
You need a very strong stomach for this novel for the trees are the southern kind that Nina Simone and Billy Holliday refer to as bearing ‘strange fruit’. Lynching. There is some very dark, macabre humour in this novel, but fury also drives through this imagined story of revenge for the death of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and all the thousands of lynchings in the southern states.
The features of an ordinary plot juxtaposed with the carnage that grows through the story echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream. We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. My review can be found here.
The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp. The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.
And some others
In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012)
Poetic and sparse, this short novel is set in a beautiful orchard of pomegranate trees, in north Pakistan. The Taliban are active, punishing those who disobey their rules, or just punishing people. The narrator has suffered in prison, and must learn to live, love and write again. The story is quiet, with sensory perceptions heightened. The orchard pays a part in his recovery. Review can be found here.
In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by Faber and Faber. 139pp
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo
The horrific Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-16 should have warned us about pandemics. The lessons learned by those involved should have been taken on board by the world as we faced the Coronavirus. In this novel, participants in the deadly epidemic relate their roles, including the baobab tree who has the last word.
‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’
The tree, a meeting point in many villages, welcomes back the humans when the outbreak is over and is optimistic about the future in which ‘the destiny of Man will become one with ours’.
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp