The Trees is a page-turner that opens with a series of brutal murders in the rural town of Money, Mississippi. When a pair of detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they meet expected resistance from the local sheriff, his deputy, the coroner, and a string of racist White townsfolk.
The murders present a puzzle, for at each crime scene there is a second dead body: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before.
The detectives suspect that these are killings of retribution, but soon discover that eerily similar murders are taking place all over the country. Something truly strange is afoot. As the bodies pile up, the MBI detectives seek answers from a local root doctor who has been documenting every lynching in the country for years, uncovering a history that refuses to be buried.
A truly strange and disturbing novel, simultaneously horrific and hilarious, brutal and humane – a coruscating satire of American racial conflict and politics, embedded in both Trump’s America and the lynching of Emmett Till in the 1955.
What I Liked
- The fantastic dialogue
- The biting satire of America
- The humour that underlies the brutality and the vitality of the novel’s message
- The hilarious mimicry of Trump’s absurd speech patterns!
What Could Have Been Different
The appalling tragedy of 14 year-old Emmett Till is at the centre of this novel, a young African American boy who at the age of 14 was kidnapped, tortured and lynched for the alleged offence of offending or flirting with a 21 year-old married white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a store.
Till’s story is iconic, rendered into film, ballad, painting and drama.
Emmett’s novel opens in Money, Mississippi with that same Carolyn Bryant, here imagined as a somewhat irascible mother and grandmother, Granny C in a somewhat morose mood:
“What was you thinking on, Granny C?”
Granny C stared off again. “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie I told all them years back on that nigger boy.”
“Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We on that again.”
“I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around.”
And what goes around does indeed come around again in a brutal way: Granny C’s son, Wheat Bryant and later her nephew Junior Junior, are found murdered in the most graphic way – that is probably worth a trigger warning:
rusty barbed wire was wrapped several times around his neck. One of his eyes had been either gouged out or carved out and lay next to his thigh, looking up at him. There was blood everywhere. One of his arms was twisted at an impossible angle behind his back. His pants were undone and pulled down to below his knees. His groin was covered with matted blood, and it looked like his scrotum was missing.
At both scenes, there is also an unknown dead, black man – seemingly years dead and brutalised in the same way as Emmett Till – clutching the missing testicles. The black man then seems to disappear from the morgue after one murder before re-appearing at the scene of the second.
From this tight start, the novel spirals rapidly: the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation – is that a real thing? – sends Special Detectives Jim Davis and Ed Morgan; the Federal Bureau of Investigation sends Special Agent Herberta Hind; more identical murders occur in an increasing spiral of violence and retribution. Are we witnessing an incredibly complex revenge conspiracy? Are we in a supernatural horror narrative? There are certainly scenes later on that seem to feel like we have stepped into The Walking Dead!
Everett never quite commits to a rational explanation for the murders or the disappearance of the black corpse, despite the extensive detective work and the fact that to a degree Everett follows the trajectory of that genre: we see crime scenes in excruciating detail, listen in on interviews etc. The novel, however, undercuts those same conventions. The narrative voice is satirical and ironic – “Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony…” – and the depiction of the Bryant family is horrifically, hilariously over-the-top rednecks. And towards the finale of the novel, Everett gives us a fantastically rendered speech by the anonymous President of the United States who can only be Trump (“my people tell me, and they’re good people, they know a lot, and they like me because I know a lot, they tell me that…”).
And the politics are deeply embedded in the narrative. Mama Z, a hundred and five and definitely not blind is at the heart of this.
She calls herself a witch. What else do you need to know? She’s kinda odd, kinda scary.
Mama Z has an archive of every lynching in America since 1913, the year of her birth, a terrifyingly vast and extensive record which of course include Emmett Till. And, making sure that the pertinancy of the novel is maintained she tells the detectives that
You should know I consider police shootings to be lynchings. No offense.
She invites a scholar, Damon Thruff, to record and document her archive and the image of him writing down the names of every victim by hand in pencil because “they become real” and “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free” is jsut as deeply haunting and powerful, as the horrific elements. And that list of names Everett offers that goes on and on and on…
I would like to say this this novel is of its time. That it captures such a specific moment in US history that it will become obsolete and redundant – and with the end of Trump’s Presidency some parts might – but the ultimate message about race and racial relations and police brutality remains terribly pertinent .
4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Trees, Percival Everett”
What a heartbreaking story. And I agree, that sadly this book will stay pertinent for a while.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This sounds like an extremely powerful read!
Pam @ Read! Bake! Create!
[…] Prize judges. This novel was rather bleak and passive and lacked the brutal white-hot anger of The Trees which I would rate a shade higher; and how anyone is meant to compare and judge those novels […]
[…] The Trees, Percival Everett […]