Treeborne: A Novel by Caleb Johnson


What makes an Elberta so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.

Could that be true of Janie Treeborne too, being allowed to trouble her own land? This southern fiction debut begins with Janie Treeborne refusing to leave her family land, The Seven in Elberta, Alabama despite knowing that ‘the water is coming.’ The Hernando de Soto dam has ‘served it’s purpose for 80 years’, her grandfather having built it, her own father Ren an engineer but it is failing now, it must be imploded. But there is nothing that will make her leave, no sir. She has fought long and hard to maintain her hold, she would’t even trade her bad eye for a good one to leave this land that she is as much a part of as the trees. “…me and this place is just too tangled up.”

Janie tells her entire family history, and how her aunt Tammy came to be kidnapped, because everything had to be preserved. “Life ain’t easy Sister.” Janie grew up a wild thing, as wild as the land, drinking from the water tadpoles swam in. Growing up wanting nothing more than to be just like her old grandmother Maybelle, filling her ears with great stories about the land. Janie spends her time toting around dirt boy Crusoe, a creation of her eccentric junk artist Grandaddy Hugh, one that talks to her, to the Treeborne kin. A peculiar thing, this living dirt boy, or is the family crazy? Furious that her aunt Tammy and Uncle Wooten want to log trees to sell and to build a new home, even leveling her grandfather’s “assemblies” to make a foundation for the place, she refuses to allow them to destroy everything. Discovering her MawMaw May’s will leave Tammy The Seven feels like a manipulation. Tammy doesn’t love the place, she wants to sell, she wanted all her life to be a movie star.Janie knows it was MawMaw’s true intention to see the land split among the silblings and so she devises a wild mean plan of her own, to ‘take care of’ her aunt. She is desperate to save the land she is obsessed with. MawMaw’s death is the catalyst that causes the wild thing in Janie to grow.

Telling of the past while being interviewed by her grandson, she too shares the story of Hugh Treeborne’s Seven Hundred Acre Junk Garden, his peculiar creations that a ‘Yankee’ took interest in  and took advantage. We get to know many generations of Treebornes in the telling, all their longings and misdeeds. Lee Malone is as much a part of the Treebornes as Janie is, an African-American, the one who owned the Peach Pit bought for whatever money he had in his billfold, who later sells it to Janie, owning it all the same way he obtained it from the wealthy Mr. Prince. But Lee Malone is so much more than just the prior owner of the Peach Orchard, he and MawMaw had their own special relationship. When Tammy goes missing, somehow he is pulled into helping search, a funny thing considering all she has done to him. What happened to Maybelle, we at least understand more in the end, so many seemed to unravel with her tragic death. The stories are more about living with a family for a time, through the years and their antics in the wilds. Stubborn as hell our Janie is, even in her old bone days. Maybe the town has seen battles, but the Treebornes seem to battle each other and themselves more than anything. Hugh and Janie are eccentric characters, and the most fascinating but there were times I was lost in other characters stories taking me in too many directions.  It’s a lot to keep up with, however the language is perfection and the southern dialogue is never abandoned, certainly not an easy thing to write.

I am curious to read more from this author, who understands a south few others can write as genuinely about.

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