Caleb Johnson’s Treeborne chronicles the roots of a small Alabama town and how the people of the town are what allow the city to endure the steady march of time.
Treeborne blends the past, the present and the even further past together through the stories of Janie Treeborne. Janie recounts the tale of her family’s time in Elberta, Alabama, weaving a colorful tapestry of a family legacy that entwines with the history of the fictional town. The sliver of Alabama that the tale takes place in is fleshed out in phenomenal detail throughout the novel, from the Treeborne’s family land known as “The Seven” to Woodrow’s Pit Cook Bar-B-Q and Big Connie Ward’s car dealership. The locations Johnson creates all feel real through Janie, the strong-willed protagonist who narrates the history of Elberta and recounts the earliest days of the town’s entrance into the modern era through her grandfather Hugh.
In Hugh’s narrative in 1929, the town is being pushed into the modern era through the construction of a dam meant to bring power to the entire area. Hugh struggles to rectify his artistic side with the societal call for practicality. Hugh finds a friend in Lee Malone, a black man taken in by a white family who occupies a similarly unique liminal space to Hugh; along with Hugh’s wife Maybelle, the pair navigates Elberta’s transition into a changing world.
Thirty years later in 1958, Janie tells of her childhood in the town, a coming of age story enveloped in dark humor as Janie kidnaps her aunt Tammy. Following Maybelle’s death under uncertain circumstances, the Treeborne family is left on the brink. Lee is scrutinized by the town for being a suspect in Maybelle’s death, and Janie escalates tensions within her town and family when she kidnaps her aunt to prevent the Seven from being passed down to Tammy. In making her kidnapping attempt, Janie kicks the hornet’s nest and triggers a flood of repercussions that affect the future for both her family and Elberta as a whole. As the events of the novel run their course, the secrets the townsfolk and Treebornes have are laid bare, and even side characters are revealed to have a depth and complexity to them that invigorates the novel.
In the end, the tales Janie tells are a story of relationships; of love, endurance, growth and of conflict. And sometimes those tales end well for folks, other times they don’t. As Lee puts it, “We’re all of us barreling on in fits and starts toward some inevitable conclusion though. Seems the trick, he thought to hisself, the world going past outside the car window, is being alright with that.”
Johnson’s writing is delightfully Southern in nature, reminiscent of Harper Lee’s character-driven stories and Faulkner’s engrossing narrative style. However, Johnson sets himself apart with a distinct personal touch that is exemplified in the way he weaves the individual tales of a vast number of characters and settings together into one complex, cohesive story. While at times the numerous plotlines can feel overwhelming, Johnson is able to ease readers into his world and knows when to allow the narrative to focus on one particular character or another. Treeborne’s characters and settings feel alive in every sense, even going so far as to blend elements of fantasy into an otherwise earthly story, which Johnson expertly implements without making them feel out of place.
Treeborne is the perfect read for transitioning from summer to fall with a story that has lighthearted beats coupled with thought-provoking and deeply emotional moments that will entrance and entice readers, especially those fond of familial sagas.