Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review: Trees of Heaven

Title: Trees of Heaven

[That's a new paperback reprint. What I physically own is a much older reprint, hardcover.]

Author: Jesse Stuart

Date: 1940

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

ISBN: 0-8131-1446-2

Length: 340 pages

Quote: “I don’t like the way Pa does things and I don’t take atter Pa.”

Tarvin Bushman lives with two contrasting role models of manhood. His father, Anse Bushman, is a hardworking farmer. His neighbor, Boliver Tussie, is a lazy “squatter.” The two men have never liked each other. Their wives aren't friends either, and although only the youngest Bushman and the eldest Tussie child are close to the same age, the children have not been brought up to see each other as friend material. As the Euro-American population of Kentucky grows bigger and denser, Boliver is about to be forced off the land to which he has no registered title, and for the sake of their teenaged children, Tarvin and Subrinea Tussie, the two men will begin to work together as friends. Tarvin and Subrinea are, of course, “in love,” but the important part of their story is the progress toward friendship and compromise between the older men.

Where do the "trees of heaven" come into it? Before North Americans decided ailanthus trees were an invasive nuisance, the trees were marketed under that name. In this novel, the neighbor families who have regarded each other as nuisances come to see that each family has some desirable qualities, rather like ailanthus trees.

Of this first novel Stuart later said that a publisher had reported that he was working on a novel, so he’d thought he’d best write one. Its theme of neighborly relations across lifestyle differences would reappear in other novels he wrote, later. He admitted some points of resemblance between Anse and his own father, the Man with a Bull Tongue Plow.

The historical setting of this novel was quaint in 1940 and may be hard to imagine now. Stuart was sentimental enough to cultivate that na├»ve literary voice (he didn’t write as if he’d gone to university) and to make nearly all his characters nice people who liked each other when they got to know each other, but he wasn’t sentimental about the “old-time country” ways his neighbors and he were leaving behind. Anse, who wastes nothing and owes nobody a penny, gives thanks when what was making him sick was nothing worse than internal worms. Trashy Boliver wants Subrinea to marry “her own kin,” a Tussie cousin, at least until he has had an opportunity to appreciate Tarvin.

Anyway this blast through the past Stuart had at least heard about, from older people, as a child, is more pleasant to read than some of his novels were through more distant pasts he had perhaps hastily imagined; through the conflicts and even the quarrels, everybody except a few unfortunate lambs lives happily ever after.

Jesse Stuart no longer needs a dollar but this web site will still sell a copy of Trees of Heaven for the usual $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment.