To understand the title, The Trees, think of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Swinging in the southern breeze [lyrics by Abel Meeropol, 1939]
To understand the novel it helps to have an idea of the story of Emmett Till. Another song always moves me: Emmylou Harris singing My Name is Emmett Till. She reminds us of the lynching in the summer of 1955 of the Black 14-year-old, who came from Chicago’s South Side to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was accused by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, of improper behaviour. Her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother WJ Milam found the boy and beat him up and shot him and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral when her son’s body was returned to her in Chicago, so that people could see what had been done to her son.
The toxic mixture of violent racism in the time of Jim Crow, fears of emasculation and lynching are the background to the novel The Trees, but you may also have heard that it is funny, a pastiche and has paranormal aspects too, a Black comedy.
The action begins in in the present time in Money, Mississippi
Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in the persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away. (11)
This is the opening paragraph: sardonic, knowing, arcane (what is this word *nescience? – see note below), amusing, showing familiarity with the Southern states. These are characteristics of tone and style of this novel. It unfolds as a detective novel.
Two detectives are sent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. They are sent to Money because two bodies have been found: a White man – Wheat Bryant – and an unknown decomposing body of a Black man clutching Bryant’s testicles. Then the Black corpse disappears, and another murder takes place, with a similar disappearing Black corpse. Jim and Ed from the MBI are not welcomed. It came to me in a jolt that they are Black. Their wisecracking, world-weary attitude is inherited from the golden age of American ‘tec fiction.
The connection with the lynching of Emmett Till is soon noted by the MBI agents, although they are shocked that a murder from nearly 70 years ago is being referenced. The story takes off from there, as a Black and female FBI agent is also involved. A 103-year-old woman, Mama Z, seems to hold some clues, and it emerges that she has records of the thousands of lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow era.
A whole chapter records the list of names that a Black scholar from Chicago makes from her records. The list takes up 10 pages of the novel. Emmett Till’s name appears about two thirds of the way through. Several lynching victims are recorded as ‘unknown male’, or are bundled together (16 adult men), some women are recorded in the list along with many Chinese names.
“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few seconds more here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real, don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon face.
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on child,” the old woman said. (211)
Mama Z tells Damon that she has compiled 7,006 dossiers of murdered people. She tells him that fewer than 1% of those responsible were convicted of these murders.
More lynching-related murders are committed, each with its testicle-clutching Black corpse in attendance. The law enforcement officers gradually put together how the murders have been committed, where the bodies are from and the stories behind these new victims. The killings continue to accelerate and spread throughout the country. It becomes obvious that the original perpetrators have lost control of their original plot. And we are in the dark territory of racism and backlash in the US, historically and in the present day.
The pastiche of the detection continues to the end – there is even a locked-in-a-fridge scene. Some jokes are corny (the three detectives who introduce themselves as Ho, Chi, and Minh, for example). But the juxtaposition of the features of the ordinary plot with the carnage 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.
I have a few scruples. The present-day victims from Wheat Bryant to the victims of the hordes that are eventually activated, while gross and racist, were the children of the murderers of the ‘50s. The issue of culpability is tricky, for no doubt they have benefited from the racism that fuelled the appalling death rate during the period of the lynchings, and the murders of all those enslaved peoples before that, but they did not commit them themselves. I guess Percival Everett want to make the point that all White people are implicated – then and now.
And I always find extra-judicial killings hard to accept, although it is clear that justice under Jim Crow laws was completely inadequate. And unlike most detective stories, the motives and methods of the murderers are not neatly explained in the final chapter. Indeed, the paranormal appears to have taken over, with the hordes chant Rise! Rise! We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon.
Perhaps that’s how it will be.
Born in 1956 and working as a professor of literature at the University of South California, Percival Everett is a prolific writer: of poetry, short stories and 23 novels. His work embraces many different traditions in English literature, and he claims the influence of Mark Twain. In the Guardian review of The Trees, he was described as a ‘seriously playful’ writer, which seems about right.
The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.
The blog review which alerted me to this book can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal, in September 2022.
*Note: Nescience is the state of not knowing.
The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp