Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Widow and the Tree by Sonny Brewer

In a connected world, where every place is right next door to every other place via cell phones, airplanes, and the internet, it was really lovely to read a novel that was truly of a very certain place. The Widow and the Tree takes place in extremely rural Alabama, and the disconnected nature of the location separates the reader from any particular time, or any invasive modern influence. Without the ringing, buzzing, and informing, what's left is a quiet book that ends up booming, a small story that resonates.

A five hundred year old live oak is the central character, as it frames the lives of a few strange characters who also inhabit this swampy and wild backwater. If you told me before I cracked it open that I would be deeply engrossed in a novel which is essentially about a tree, and tangentially about a couple of hermits, I would have been skeptical. However, the scene that Sonny Brewer paints is compelling and surprising in its depth. Rather than limiting the book, the narrow scope propels the reader farther into the landscape, so it's possible to read a chapter about the noises a bird makes tapping on the branch of a tree and actually still stay engaged. It's possible to really be quietly present in this dangerous, haunting world of the Ghosthead Oak and start to know it, or at least to know how much you don't know about it.

The book is small, but it penetrates like a bullet. It's as specific as a fingerprint, and as unforgettable as a face. I'm impressed with Brewer's restraint, both in language and in characterization. There is nothing goopy and romantic about this widow, nothing drearily tragic about her hero either. The wilderness is hard, and the book is hard, but it's also beautiful in its simplicity.

The Widow and the Tree is a prime example of why MacAdam/Cage is great and would be sorely missed.

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