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Trees in Fiction

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.

An oak tree by the Bovey River in Dartmoor National Park

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 

  • Steadfastness
  • Longevity
  • Shelter
  • Provider of food
  • Slow growth
  • Power
  • Former times
  • vulnerability
  • loveliness.

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’. 

Baobab tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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

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The Trees by Percival Everett

To understand the title, The Trees, think of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. 

Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots 
Black bodies
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.

Funeral photo via Wiki Commons: Emmett Till’s parents at his funeral by David Jackson September 15 1955

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 Trees

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.
“Why pencil?”
“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. 

Percival Everett

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

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