Author of ‘The Killing Tree’ here Nov. 7
“The Killing Tree,” by Rachel Keener. Center Street. 324 pp. $13.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
It’s another coming-of-age story, but author Rachel Keener redeems herself in “The Killing Tree.”
There’s a touch of cliche in the characters ó lonely girl, bad girl with a heart of gold, outsider boy who steals lonely girl’s heart, grumpy grandfather.
But it’s tinged with underlying danger. Grumpy grandpa is a vindictive, angry man who’s responsible for his daughter’s death and nearly kills his granddaughter and his wife.
Father Heron, a deacon at the church, is hellfire and brimstone all the way. The book’s heroine, Mercy, is his granddaughter, who lives in fear of his wrath and suffers from his lack of love.
Her grandmother, Momma Rutha, loves her, but the poor woman is crazy as a bed bug ó it’s her protection against a cruel man in cruel world.
They live over Crooktop way, a mountain community in the Appalachians that’s forgotten and isolated and proudly backward. Coal is about the only work available.
Where there is nothing but poverty, class struggles are a part of everyday life. The poor mountain folk don’t want nothing to do with the “mater migrants,” who come to work the fields. Nor do they cotton to the six and twenty milers, who live an isolated, some say primitive, life.
Mercy, full of fear and hunger, quickly learns the kindness of the people she’s been taught to despise. She finds welcome and nurturing in the mater migrants, kinfolk in the six and twenty milers. Finally, she learns what family means.
It sure ain’t that square house full of suspicion and loathing. Even when she runs away, she’s trailed by a powerful fear of Father Heron and his wrath. His righteousness.
Della, the bad girl with a heart of gold, is plagued by a wild and free mama who just doesn’t have much time to spend on her, except for hair and makeup advice.
Like Mercy, all Della wants is someone to love her.
Mercy has Momma Rutha, but she’s hardly reliable, growing a garden that can’t be harvested, wandering, naked and singing, through the deep woods of Crooked Top Mountain.
It’s a pretty crazy world, a world where big things happen in big ways, because no one has the power or the will to stop them. Mercy tries her best to survive.
Her mother, Mary, did not.
When Mary came home pregnant and in labor, Father Heron would not let her in the house. She gives birth up the hill, with Momma Rutha’s help, but bleeds to death. Mercy says Father Heron killed her. She carries that in her heart always.
When Mercy meets Trout, a mater migrant, you know the ending cannot be happy. In these mountains, suffering often trumps happiness. Suffering is what the people know best.
Mercy makes a huge sacrifice to be with Trout. She fears the punishment she knows will come, although she’s left bitter Father Heron.
But when she goes back to Crooktop to take her friend Della to run away, Trout is accused of stealing Father Heron’s dogs.
He’s innocent, but it doesn’t matter. “Homecooked” is what they call the justice ’round Crooktop. And Trout is well done and gone.
Mercy, pregnant with her true love’s child, grieves and fears and hates, endangering the baby, until only the seventh son of a seventh son can save her.
Then she does what she has to to survive, anything she has to, until she, too, gives birth and fights the ultimate battle with Father Heron.
Southern Gothic is used to describe all sorts of stories about the South. Gothic this is, with its big emotions and dramatic consequences, yet it captures a part of the South and its people well.
There are men who hate, who call their children abominations, who rule with an iron fist ó who hide a broken heart.
There are people driven crazy by cruelty, people who can still share love despite awful hardships. And amidst the suffering, some small redemption is almost always found.
This first novel shows promise for the author, who already has a second book, “The Memory Thief,” in the works.
Keener, who lives in Winston-Salem, graduated from Wake Forest University Law School.
Literary Bookpost will have a reception and signing for Keener on Saturday, Nov. 7, from 3-5 p.m.