(Damon Thruff looking through Mama Z’s files of lynchings since 1913)
“You did all this?” Damon asked.
from The Trees
The comedic and the horrific
This book is very funny. It is also horrific in its subject matter, the history of lynching in the United States. A finalist for this year’s Booker Prize (to be announced on October 17,) The Trees reminds one of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the Booker Prize in 2016. Both employ sharp satirical humor, but Trees has more of a conventional narrative.
Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are Black detectives sent to Money, Mississippi, to investigate the gruesome murders of two White men, as well as the mystery of an unidentified Black corpse found at both crime scenes. Once in custody, the Black corpse disappeared, only to re-appear at the next gruesome murder. It turns out that the victims, Wheat Bryant and Junior Junior Milam, were the adult sons of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the men who brutally murdered 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 while the boy was visiting his aunt in Money. Both men were found not guilty by an all-White jury.
More suspicious deaths occur, accompanied by the mysterious corpse, which again disappears. Soon, similar murders are happening across the country, in Chicago, in Wyoming, where Chinese workers had been lynched. The key to these murders may be a 104-year old Black woman called Mama Z, who has meticulously recorded every lynching in the US since 1913—the year her father was lynched for trying to vote.
Everett, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California, has fun playing with cultural stereotypes associated with the South: the deputy sheriff who “puts on airs” because he had a year of junior college; the local funeral home that was formerly a Dairy Queen; a character who refuses to read People magazine because she can’t stand those “intellectual elites.” The book is sure to offend southerners in general, White supremacists in particular, and most of the state of Mississippi.
The humor is wrapped in snappy dialogue that’s natural and authentic—which is to say much of it can’t be quoted in a family magazine.
“I just want you to know that I ain’t like a lot of folks around here.”
“Is that right?” Jim asked.
“I went to junior college.”
“Good for you,” Ed said.
“Know what I think?”
“I should hope not…”
“Don’t mind him,” Ed said. “Tell me what you think, Jethro.”
Philip Roth once defined satire as moral outrage transformed into comic art. The Trees is a masterful work of comic art, balancing the horror with humor as it explores a bitter chapter in our country’s saga of race.
This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.