The Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction is sponsored by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. It is awarded for a novel or collection of short fiction by an Alberta author in the previous year.
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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In the 1930s, Ellie and Mavis Turner live on their father’s failing Florida orange grove. Ellie is head-turningly beautiful, her father’s spoiled favourite. Selfish, mean-spirited, vindictive, lustful, and a proficient liar, she bears a striking resemblance to Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames. When her father sells her to a rich landowner in exchange for badly-needed money, Ellie is outraged but pays dearly for her underestimation of the man’s determination to have her. Her refusal to marry him is the catalyst for all that follows.
Young Mavis wholeheartedly believes in her older sister’s good nature, despite everything she sees to the contrary. Although slow to take root, Mavis’s character grows and matures as she seeks to understand why white privilege is so endemic it is barely noticed. Juxtaposed against Mavis’s growing maturity, Ellie inevitably sees herself as the victim and can justify her actions as warranted revenge for whatever has been done to her. Shea does little to forward Ellie’s growth beyond her churlish cruelty and petulance, and this serves the narrative well.
A midwife, living on the Yates plantation, Sliver is always there to catch new life as it emerges, regardless of colour or parentage. She is the sieve through which the events run, filtering out right from wrong and bringing perspective. Her silence about much of what she sees and feels is well-founded, but some secrets should not be kept forever.
For fifty years, readers share a harrowing journey with these three women, whose lives become inextricably entwined. The novel explores young white women’s attraction (although forbidden) to Black men. With non-Black authors currently discouraged from writing Black stories, Shea successfully finds neutral ground in this situation, leaving the reader to discern the innumerable wrongs and the uplifting rights. Mesmerizing, engrossing, and brilliantly plotted, this is an achievement that will echo long after the last page is turned.
“I will begin my review of The Shade Tree by talking for a while about To Kill A Mockingbird, because I find it difficult to review the former without first mentioning the latter. Many of you have heard of Harper Lee’s award-winning novel; some may even have studied it in school, like I did. It’s set in the south of the States in the 1930s and discusses the themes of racism and class through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, watching and learning of the prejudices rampant in her small town.
How well it discusses race, though, is a question with different answers depending on who you ask. On the one hand, it’s a good thing that it talks about race in the first place: prejudice and antiblackness make up a good portion of the plot, with the characters cleanly divided between the good – those who aren’t racist – and the bad – those who are.”
Winner of the 2020 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction
When the lies of thirteen-year-old Ellie Turner cause a black man’s lynching in 1930s Florida, her younger sister Mavis begins to question the family’s long-held beliefs about race. At the same time, the novel focuses on the courageous story of Sliver, a black midwife whose love for her grandson forces her to flee to Washington DC with the child, and Mavis, in tow. As the novel progresses through the decades, the lives of the three women merge and troubling family secrets are revealed.
The Shade Tree is a dramatic exploration of racial injustice and conflict set against the backdrop of some of America’s most turbulent historical events. The lives of two white sisters and a black midwife are inextricably linked through a series of haunting tragedies, and the characters must make difficult, life-changing decisions about where their loyalties lie: with their biological families or with a greater moral cause. From a Florida orange grove to the seat of power in Washington, DC, during the height of the civil rights movement, The Shade Tree tells a sweeping yet intimate story of racial discrimination and the human hunger for justice.
From “All Lit Up”
“It wasn’t until adulthood that author Theresa Shea learned that as a child she had attend the March on Washington with her mother and been present for Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech “I Have a Dream.” Out of this moment comes Shea’s novel The Shade Tree (Guernica Editions), the story of two white sisters growing up in the Jim Crow south and a black midwife—all of whom must make life-changing decisions about where their loyalties lie: with their biological families or with a greater moral cause.”