"Treeborne" By: Caleb Johnson

Jun 26, 2019


Author: Caleb Johnson   

Publisher: Picador

New York


Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)

Pages: 320

“Treeborne” is an amazing debut novel that has arrived on the scene with considerable fanfare. Advance praise comes from Daniel Wallace, Jill McCorkle, Brad Watson, and many others.

Caleb Johnson, a native of tiny Arley, Alabama, graduated from the university, then took the MFA in Laramie, at The University of Wyoming, to study with Brad Watson.

Watson has his MFA from Alabama and is the author of “The Heaven of Mercury” and recently “Miss Jane,” both finalists for the National Book Award.

“Treeborne” is set in fictional Elberta, Alabama. There really is an Elberta, Alabama but Johnson didn’t know that at the time. His Elberta is in North Alabama, at the site of the fictional Hernando de Soto Dam, constructed by The Authority in 1929.

At that period the TVA and the power companies were bringing electricity to all parts of the South.

The dam serves as a powerful center of this multi-generational novel. While it is being built, it offers construction work to all the men in the area but also will flood many acres of homes and farms and graves.

“The Buried Land” is a recurring subject in Southern novels, from William Bradford Huie’s “Mud on the Stars” to Madison Jones to Ron Rash. As important as electrification was to the rural South, much was lost.

On the other hand, many sins and secrets will also be hidden forever.

Or nearly forever.

After being in service for 80 years, the dam has served its purpose and will be taken down, uncovering the land and its secrets and flooding DIFFERENT homes and farms.

In each case, folks will be compensated, but cash can never assuage the grief of that kind of loss.

The first line of the book is “The water was coming, but Janie Treeborne would not leave.”

Janie, who owns a peach orchard, is willing to go under when the water comes.

She and the place are “just too tangled up.”

Not surprisingly, much of the action of “Treeborne” takes place in and around peach orchards. The local beauty queen is the Elberta Peach. The local hangout is the Peach Pit.

We begin to learn the story when a young man with a tape recorder, Janie’s grandson, comes to interview her for an oral history/genealogy project.

Janie, a white woman with one eye (and there is a long, complicated story there), tells of receiving the land from Lee Malone, a black man, who got it from old Mr. Prince, a white man.

And so it begins, several generations of woven stories of love, acknowledged and hidden, business, small-town life, petty grievances, even kidnappings, and buried and reburied corpses, some old, some brand new.

Along the way, we spend time with assorted unusual characters, including Hugh Treeborne, an outsider artist, who creates “assemblies,” sculptures and paintings of found materials, and is “discovered” by an unscrupulous Yankee art dealer, and Maybelle Treeborne, the town’s first female postmaster.

“Treeborne” is an original and fresh piece of fiction. Johnson is no imitator, but he is a fine student of Southern literature, an assimilationist.

The convoluted family history in “Treeborne” seems to be modelled on Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom.” Like “Absalom,” it is a challenging read but absolutely worth the effort. The portraits of rural and blue-collar folk remind one of Larry Brown or Rick Bragg and the lyrical prose of Brad Watson.

I happily echo Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.