Reviewed by K. R. Wilson
Novelist Theresa Shea attended the civil rights march in Washington in 1963 with her mother and sister. She was three months old. While she would’ve been too young to remember the experience, the fact of it has plainly stayed with her, and shapes her impressive new novel The Shade Tree, the winner of the 2020 Guernica Prize.
The Shade Tree follows three women from two families through the horrors of Jim Crow America, from rural Florida in 1930 to Washington in 1963. Two of the main characters—sisters Mavis and Ellie—are privileged daughters of a struggling orchard owner. The third, Sliver, is a Black kitchen worker and midwife on a more prosperous neighbouring farm. The novel sensitively and carefully highlights the contrasts in their experiences of the racism of the time, including the ways the perspectives of the two white sisters diverge over three decades.
Ellie, the elder sister, chafes under the control of her father, and later of her husband, while staying willfully oblivious to her own ugly control over the Black people in her community, and in particular the Black men who work her family’s orchard. That ignorance has its consequences: her defiant pursuit of the exploitative freedoms the white men around her indulge in has catastrophic results for her Black neighbours, and drastically redirects the arc of her own privileged life.
Mavis, the more sensitive of the two sisters, gradually develops the ability to look beyond the strictures of her society and, eventually, to look for ways to help improve things. There are no glib white saviours here, though. In the late stages of the book, Shea herself signals through Mavis her own determination not to presume a perspective she doesn’t have.
Importantly, of the three women, Sliver is—within the constraints of the society—the one with the most agency, and functions as a sharp corrective to the privileged perspectives of the two white women. In a telling scene at a family funeral, she fairly observes of Mavis “how easily white women turned on the tears … That was just a skill they learned like how to wipe their backsides. When they got caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing, they cried and lied and cried and lied.” Sliver is written with respect and empathy and gives the novel a context and depth that it would have felt jarringly incomplete without. She’s also, simply, a wonderful character. In one of the book’s more luminous images, she recalls how her husband Gideon juggled oranges for her when they first met: “And just like she knew the sun would set that evening and rise the following morning, so too did she know she would marry the boy who made oranges dance in the sky.”
The subjugation of the white society’s women is important to the story, but Shea in no way equates it with that society’s dehumanization of the Black population. Nothing the white women suffer remotely compares with the frequent beatings and killings of Black men, often on the slimmest of pretexts. In one harrowing chapter, the lynching of a Black man for a fabricated theft becomes the occasion for a neighbourhood picnic, complete with souvenir photos taken with his body.
The book consistently avoids taking the easy route that more conventional fiction might: even when things take a turn for the better, the characters encounter—or create—fresh obstacles, and respond to them as messily as we might in their places. It also wears its research well. With the occasional slight exception (I’m looking at you, Paul Newman) its historical details are always in the service of the narrative, avoiding the tendency in some historical writing to include every shiny thing the author has unearthed. And while the occasional plot detail might feel a bit strained (probably inevitable in a book of this scope) each is given a realistic explanation.
The Shade Tree is compellingly written and meticulously crafted, with short, tight chapters, richly drawn characters, a tautly woven narrative, and precise, evocative descriptive passages. It is an unsettling but rewarding read.
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