The Trees by Percival Everett
Published by Graywolf Press
Publication date: September 21, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Fantasy, Literary
Percival Everett’s novel The Trees is a dark and darkly humorous look deep into the foul, blood-clogged engine of racism. Set in a small Mississippi town locked in the 1950s, the death of two good ole boys has left residents stunned. Not because they were particularly liked (they were not), but because the crimes are so gruesome, specifically the removal of certain body parts by force, not cutting. That said body parts are found next to the corpses in the hand of another body, that of a young Black male is the shocker. Or maybe it’s that the same dead Black male keeps appearing and disappearing at the crime scenes.
This is enough to get the MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigations) and a special agent from the FBI involved. All three are Black and well-schooled in what to expect when arriving in the kind of town where segregation and the n-word are still the norm. But even as they start asking questions another body appears along with a different Black corpse, only in Chicago.
The motive for the killings is made clear early on: The town and the dead are all tied to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. The men were descendants of the two men who tortured and lynched Till. But what begins as retribution soon takes a supernatural slant as more deaths of the exact same kind appear across the U.S. All in towns and cities where people of color have been wrongfully killed with impunity by whites and the police.
From the opening page, The Trees takes off at a pace that creates the effect of a freefall amusement park ride—there is no point when you can catch your breath. Instead, Everett births a cast of characters that encompasses a 105-year-old local woman who’s documented every lynching in America since her birth in 1913, a waitress who’s passing at the local diner, and an assortment of white fools, officers of the law, and functionaries embarrassing to all mankind. Each is a live wire, shocking either through their wisdom or their stupidity. Everett goes even further, with sly asides and silly word play with characters’ names that bring laughter in equal proportion to the feeling that laughter is inappropriate.
Is it good that a gruesome satire about an uprising against racism energizes me? Probably not, but is it right that a Black teen is shot in Missouri for knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the afternoon? I want to believe violence is not the answer, but at what point does numbness over the never-ending cycle of racist bloodshed become complicity? The Trees is not an incitement to vigilantism, but a stunning literary pushback against the institutionalized genocide of Blacks in America. It is brilliant, hilarious, and shocking. Everett’s prose flies off the page in a way that feels effortless, but disguises a ferocious intellect. His words flay the privilege of complacency by peeling off its protective skin, exposing the bone of painful truth—racism is alive and well in America.
For more contemporary fiction that shocks with its power I highly recommend Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.
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Mic Minneman says
I love your reviews Catherine and I think we are mini reading twins but I don’t think I can handle this one.
Understood. It is an intense and uncomfortable satire on a difficult subject. It was just what I needed after too much reading of statistics about violence against vulnerable communities where nothing has changed.