The Trees by Percival Everett, shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is about the history of lynching and racist violence in America. The book imagines an ever-widening pattern of retribution for past atrocities. Trouble starts in the town of Money, Mississippi, investigated first by local law enforcement, then by Mississippi state police, finally by the FBI.
This sounds like tough subject-matter, and it is. But unexpectedly the book is very funny. Some of the dialogue, particularly amongst the denizens of Money, is hilarious. This incongruity is an introduction to the way the book challenges categories.
For example, there are categories of race, where bitter divides become increasingly meaningless:
Braden looked back at Dixie. “I heard tell that Dixie got a drop in her.”
“We all got a drop in us, you stupid peckerwood.”
Since humanity first evolved in Africa, this is undeniably true.
The trees of the book’s title are a symbol of lynching, in the sense that they were the site of these dreadful events. But trees also have very different connotations. The book uses the image of family trees to describe tangled patterns of relation that blur all kinds of apparent division, between black, white, rural racist, urban sophisticate, or whatever it might be. Family trees don’t suggest violent division so much as the links between us all.
What if a group sets out to avenge the awful behaviour of racists of the past, through retribution visited on their children or relatives? No doubt some of those relatives are just as bad as their lynching forebears, their true nature barely held in check. But family trees make it difficult to know where the limits of retribution should lie. Would you call a halt at grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or cousins three times removed? Where along the six degrees of separation does separation become wide enough? If retribution kept following family trees along every branch, would it end up coming back to the people who were abused in the first place? A hidden, mixed parentage of some of the characters, and the book’s shocking denouement, suggests this would be the case.
Actually the idea of a family tree could even link an entertaining, subtle, funny novel, to a highly sobering, uncompromising book about human relationships. The overall result is The Trees – funny, deadly serious, straightforward in its writing, highly sophisticated in its thematic structure, unsparing and humane.