Written By: Caleb Johnson
Published By: Picador
Reviewed By: Frank Murtaugh
Every family has a history, but some have more secrets than others. The Treebornes of Elberta, Alabama, have secrets, all born into a community that, according to one member “could constipate the soul.” Caleb Johnson crafts his debut novel fueled by his upbringing in rural Alabama, the place as important as the people it produces. Told across three generations — and three distinct stages along a troubled family tree — Treeborne reminds us that surviving the secrets makes every difference.
“What makes an Elberta peach so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.”
We’re introduced to Janie Treeborne, 13 years old in 1958 when a family member turns up missing, then well into her golden years in reflecting on the scars that remain. There’s Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale, Janie’s aunt and the wife of Wooten Ragsdale, his right hand maimed in a farm accident, his life story wounded as a Treeborne in-law.
Lest we forget this is the South, where Faulkner’s ghost lurks eternally, there’s Jesse Absalom Treeborne, known casually as Hugh. Tammy’s father and Janie’s grandfather, Hugh, is a patriarch of sorts, one who finds a unique creative outlet, but in a land where creativity either dies quietly or disappears in the hands of profiteers. And there’s Lee Malone, a black man raised by white parents. Hugh’s best friend, Lee is a former singer on the chitlin’ circuit, and a comforting presence for Maybelle Treeborne, Hugh’s wife.
Johnson incorporates temporal shifts — back to 1929, ahead to the present — to gradually draw focus on the Treebornes’ collective fate. The approach accentuates the notion that each of us is merely a product of our predecessors, and those who came before us had the very same crises of conscience we desperately want to claim as our own. “It’s the piling on of moment after moment strung out across all damn-blasted time that leads to what you call true understanding.”
Tammy wants out of Elberta long before Janie considers escaping her hometown, but each belongs to the native soil as much as the peach orchard Lee manages. The Treebornes are not so much from a place, as of a place. And the place haunts.
Johnson writes vividly. “Beyond the trees a spermy cloudtail passed across the moon’s bruised face.” And he manages to capture stresses of the heart, the attachments that build a family and the resentments that can fracture its cross-generational fabric. Family, as we learn from three generations of Treebornes, is hard. And unforgiving.
Misdeeds are harmful when committed by outsiders, and outsiders play major roles in Treeborne, from the local high school football star to a one-eyed cat named Geronimo. A Yankee can’t be trusted, we know. But are we to be surprised when a dead body turns up in a body of water called Dismal Creek?
“Treebornes are a mule-headed bunch,” Tammy tells her sister-in-law, who should know enough, having indeed married one. But survival is what human beings do best. Even Treebornes. Life in Elberta is never elegant, never easy. But sometimes music sounds best when played on a dead man’s guitar.
Memphis resident Frank Murtaugh is the author of Trey’s Company.