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It’s perfect timing that TREEBORNE, Caleb Johnson’s debut, should be released at the beginning of summer. You can most perfectly appreciate this deeply Southern novel by opening the windows on a humid summer evening, pouring yourself a glass of sweet tea, and biting into a ripe, juicy peach. Just be sure not to drip on the pages, since this is a book you’re going to want on your bookshelf for a long time.

TREEBORNE is set in the (fictional) Alabama town of Elberta, also the name of a popular (real) peach variety. Appropriately enough, peach growing is central to life in Elberta --- the local radio station is even called The Peach. The book traces the history of the town and three generations of the Treeborne family, as their dwindling prospects play out in parallel.

The novel opens in the present day, as elderly Janie Treeborne is being asked to narrate her memories of the place where she’s lived her entire life. The dam that helped create the area’s topography is about to fail, taking the town with it, and Janie is refusing to leave. What follows are glimpses into two earlier stages of Elberta’s history, in 1929 and 1958.

"Johnson is a capable participant in a grand tradition of Southern literature, giving readers indelible images of corpses, snakes (so many snakes), and glimpses of magic and mystery."

The stories from 1929 focus largely on Janie’s grandparents, Hugh and Maybelle. Hugh, a reluctant participant in the construction of the ill-fated dam, is also an artist, creating fantastical “assemblies” from found objects. Maybelle is the area’s first postmistress, and the two of them quickly form a relationship complicated by shared secrets and hidden desires as they establish the 700-acre Treeborne family property known as The Seven.

The stories from 1958 focus on Janie’s own childhood; she adored her grandmother and has been shattered by Maybelle’s sudden and somewhat unexplained death. What’s more, Maybelle left nearly all her possessions to her only daughter, Janie’s Hollywood-obsessed aunt Tammy, who, with her husband, plans to raze Janie’s beloved forests in pursuit of a logging fortune. Incensed by this prospect, Janie helps instigate what is at first meant to be a practical joke but soon spirals out of control.

These plot points, however, are far from the main point --- or the richest rewards --- of TREEBORNE. Readers looking for a propulsive plot are likely to be disappointed, but the real pleasure here is the way in which the book immerses you into this place and with this eccentric cast of Southern characters. The verdant-to-the-point-of-oppressive landscape is ripe with vegetation but also rife with dangers. The pages are populated not only with well-realized primary characters but with a full complement of memorable, quirky minor ones.

Johnson is a capable participant in a grand tradition of Southern literature, giving readers indelible images of corpses, snakes (so many snakes), and glimpses of magic and mystery. The novel’s language also contributes to its immersive feel --- even the narrator uses the colloquialisms (“breadloaf,” “swoll”) that pepper the characters’ speech, making readers feel as if these vivid stories are being passed down directly to them.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 22, 2018

by Caleb Johnson

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250169100
  • ISBN-13: 9781250169105