Blogs by Holly Weiss
A Review of Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton
1/10/2011 8:44:48 AM
Some Find Healing Under the Mercy Trees
Inspired by an incident in her husband’s family, debut author Heather Newton explores human regret, broken relationships and loss of family communication in Under the Mercy Trees, a January 18, 2011 paperback release from Harper Publishing.
During her childhood, Ms. Newton and her siblings played on a tree which looked much like an elephant trunk, believing it was magical. The book’s title, Under the Mercy Trees, is reminiscent of those trees ravaged by Hurricane Hazel. The trees survived but grew mangled and askew, much like Ms. Newton’s characters. With stellar craftsmanship, the author delves into difficult family issues. Character rather than plot driven, the novel is dark and honest. The author moves fluidly between numerous voices and points of view. We sympathize with her characters and long for them to find healing.
Set in small-town Solace Fork, North Carolina in the 1950s and the 1980s, the plot of Under the Mercy Trees centers around the disappearance of sixty-five-year- old Leon Owenby, eldest of five siblings. Newton’s characters stand in the autumn of their lives, disillusioned and resigned to their existences. They dance to a stinging tune of sibling abuse, molestation, homophobia, intolerance and suicide. Some find redemption in their relationships with each other and God. Others sit isolated—as Newton describes— “like a broken desk waiting to be taken out with the trash,” longing for a morsel of the solace for which their town is named.
Liza, high-school girlfriend to youngest sibling, Martin, aptly articulates the premise of the novel. Upon considering the trees, she asks, “Did they remember the trauma that bent them, or had they gotten on with things?”
Although the swarm of characters may overwhelm the reader at first, their dilemmas are gripping and honest. Bitterness breeds in the Owenby family, but welcome hints of healing enrich the novel, like a hymn sung during a baptism:
“There is a calm, a sure retreat;
‘Tis found beneath the mercy seat.”
Ms. Newton astounds by revealing the damage done by lack of communication between family members whose dreams are long gone. Under the Mercy Trees is a brave examination of a family we may publicly shun, but secretly fear might be our own.
An impressive first novel recommended for those who appreciate character studies and family dramas.
I thank Harper Collins Paperbacks and LibraryThing for supplying me with this review copy. The opinions expressed are unbiased and wholly my own.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
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