Families are complicated, but perhaps none are more complicated than the Treebornes of Elberta, Ala., the subject of Caleb Johnson’s vernacular-heavy and ambitious debut about three generations of the family from the 1920s to present day.
“Treeborne” begins in the present when we meet Janie Treeborne, the youngest of the family, now an old woman, telling her story to a visitor who has shown up with a tape recorder and a microphone. Janie is the sole remaining occupant of a house on the Treeborne’s coveted land known as The Seven, land that is in danger now that the Hernando de Soto Dam — the dam her grandfather Hugh built — is no longer needed. In fact, the dam’s imminent destruction will flood her out of house and home if she doesn’t hightail it out of there fast.
But as you might suspect, Janie isn’t going anywhere.
“Me and this place,” she says, “and I don’t just mean what you can look out yonder and lay eyes upon — me and this place is just too tangled up.”
Speaking of tangled up. Readers may find it a challenge to keep track of the Treeborne family tree and its many associates. First there’s Maybelle, Hugh, Janie, Ren, Nita and Luther Treeborne. Then there’s Wooten Ragsdale and Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale, Lee Malone and Mr. Prince. The list goes on and includes someone named Seth Loudermilk, who flies into the story just as quickly as he flies back out again, playing a mainly off-camera role in an ongoing, underdeveloped subplot about Hugh Treeborne’s posthumously successful mixed media art called “assemblies.” And there’s a “dirt boy” named Crusoe, a doll who little Janie Treeborne is tied to like Linus is to his blanket. Only this doll sometimes comes to life, making “Treeborne” replete with fantastical fanfare in case you felt something was missing.
Johnson may have bit off more than he can chew, which is too bad because his characters, once you get to know them, are folks you enjoy spending time with. The time jumps across decades and the abundant cast of characters make reading “Treeborne” feel as though you are endlessly attempting to climb a large tree yourself, only every time you make it out toward the end of a branch to settle in and enjoy the view, someone knocks you off and you find yourself having to start all over again.
The novel’s most compelling character is Janie’s aunt Tammy. All glitz and glam, she is the kind of woman who prioritizes hair appointments and looking her best at funerals and dreams of going to Hollywood. Her plans are waylaid when she finds herself kidnapped for having the audacity to want to build a house on her family’s land. Tammy is the only character we really get to see evolve, and it’s endearing to see her change, especially in those tender, maternal moments with Janie. “Men are fools, Sister,” Tammy says in an attempt to console Janie after a heartbreak. Janie unfortunately doesn’t say much in response to her aunt’s gestures as she spends the majority of the book alone in the woods with her dirt boy.
In “Treeborne,” chapters flash by like scenes from a movie, and you can’t help but sit back and enjoy the ride. Some of the best chapters are from the 1920s and ‘30s, when Hugh and Maybelle Treeborne come together, and we’re able to see how this family came to be the way it is. There are other memorial moments involving Lee Malone, a black man in a white world in love with a woman he can’t have, and Ricky Birdsong, the kid who was a star player for the Conquistadors and was going to be a big football star and leave town. These characters, each in their own way, will break your heart. They’re a testament to Johnson, who has created an entire town you can’t help but feel like you’ve been to before, filled with people you can’t help but feel you know.
Yet for all of “Treeborne’s” cinematic scope, the reel begins to unravel, and by the end it’s difficult to connect all that’s come before. Perhaps readers simply ought to take solace in the words that come out of the mouth of Lyle Crews toward the end of the book, “Everybody got what they deserved, ain’t that right?”
If you say so.
“Treeborne” is a story of the way things used to be, of regrets and lost dreams, mistakes and missteps, and of family. But mainly it’s a story about a place and the people who lived there and how over the years, well, things happened. For all of Johnson’s flourish and intent, it’s hard not to want “Treeborne” to be a little more than what it is, which is not so much a cohesive whole but rather slices of life strung together. “Treeborne” sets out with epic determination, and at moments succeeds, however readers may feel disappointed in a story that only seems to say — those Treeborne’s sure are something, huh?
by Caleb Johnson Picador 320 pages, $26
by Caleb Johnson
320 pages, $26
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.