The Trees by Percival Everett

Can you see the wood for them?

The lovely Notts TV Book Club invited me to read The Trees by Percival Everett. All I knew about this book before I opened it, was that it was connected to racist lynching in Mississippi in the “The Trees” in the 50s. With such an evocative title, and such an inescapably important context, I knew I had to read it.

In all honesty – it’s hard to know where do I start with this review? It’s possibly one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. I fear my thoughts will be as wild as the narrative, so forgive me if they feel a little all-over-the-place.

First things first – did I like it?

I don’t think I can even answer that question succinctly. I had a love-hate relationship with it. I loved the fact it caught me by surprise in many ways. I hated the constant use of the n-word and the toe-curlingly dreadful characters who used it. I loved the unapologetic centering of the thousands of victims of lynching. I appreciated the author’s mocking and humorous portrayal the White racists. I didn’t love the fact that I had no idea what genre I was reading (crime? satire? horror?) – but I loved it for this at the same time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take a breath and tell you a little bit about it….

The Trees is inspired by the true story of Emmett Till. A fourteen year old Black boy who was accused of saying something suggestive to a White woman, Carolyn Bryand, and murdered as a result. He was subjected to racist torture and lynching. Sadly, not an unusual story. It’s estimated that around 5,000 Black men and women were lynched in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Emmett Till’s case, Carolyn Bryand later admitted to lying about the whole thing. Her accusation wasn’t true. But by then the damage was done. The extreme racists had been given their opportunity and taken in.

This awful piece of American history is what Percival Everett takes as his starting point for the book.

In The Tress, Granny C is a primary character. She is an elderly White woman living in Money, Mississippi (the town where Emmett Till resided in real life) with her comically dysfunctional family. Her son is murdered and disfigured in a funny-not-funny way at the start of the story. Spookily, found next to his corpse, is the corpse of a long dead Black boy. Granny C is haunted by this, she believes her past has come back to haunt her, and to seek vengeance on those she loves. I won’t say too much more for fear of spoiling it for anyone who wishes to read The Trees, but I’ll just say that this powerful beginning turns into many twists, turns and terrifying instances. The murders continue, as does the appearance of the Black cadaver, bringing with him the messages of revenge and unfinished business from the past. Interwoven with the alarming plot, is some witty crime writing, cop drama, intriguing supernatural occurrences and ultimately, a socio-politically astute time of reckoning for the lost lives of so many at the hands of racism.

As you all know – I love a good book. I like a page-turning story and a beautiful turn of phrase. But more than that, I love the steps that each and every one of them takes me on on my journey towards anti-racism. The Trees, for all it’s craziness, taught me a lot.

It forced me to think about justice, and the lack of it for Black Americans. The thousands of people killed, which are painstakingly listed over six pages of the book, and the impact on their families and communities can’t be denied, and in The Trees, they jump out t at you and bite you on the nose. The revenge sought for the deaths could be more aptly named justice. You may have seen the news articles lately, showing pictures of an elderly lady in a nursing home – Carolyn Bryant – living out her dotage. A luxury that Emmett Till, and many others, weren’t afforded.

Resurrection is also an important theme in Everett’s novel. It highlights the fact racism has sadly never gone away. Racism, brutality and injustice are still facts of life for people of colour in the Western world. The same prejudices rise again and again. The stats on police brutality and hate crimes sadly make it unavoidable to ignore the continuing problems.

Everett highlights the horror and the white-washing of history extremely powerfully. One poignant line “history is a mother fucker” couldn’t be more apt. Terrible, horrendous, unforgivable things have happened in history, but little of it is taught or understood, therefore, you could argue that little is learnt from it. What’s happening in the world today will be the next generations history lesson. What will they think of 21st Century society?

Something I’ve learned lately – you have to make a conscious choice to work towards racial justice. You have to actively seek out the stories of people of colour, otherwise you could easily remain blissfully unaware. It’s not always easy, but I’m glad I’ve made that choice. I’ve learnt, been inspired and taken action as a result. By reading this blog, you’ve made that choice too. Thank you. And let me know what you think of the book!

Published by clairebale

Mixed-race Brit on a journey to learn, explore and understand more about society, equality and race. A marketer, educator and feminist, and a committed ally to everyone wanting to do more to make positive change in the world.

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