Everett’s The Trees
Percival Everett’s The TREES is the most sarcastic, gut-punchingly funny novel about the Emmett Till lynching. As I type that sentence, I think, What the hell? In the apt words of one of the characters from The Trees, it is, “A sentence I never imagined myself saying.” Very on-brand that this book, which short-listed for the Booker Prize, gave me a meta moment with one of its characters. (The first paragraph contained a word I didn’t know: nescience; it means ignorance. Can you believe that?)
Nescience Me and The Trees
When I started reading Everett’s The Trees, I had no idea its subject matter. I picked it up because it was Everett’s latest novel, and critics loved it. I was first introduced to Everett at Oxford Conference for the Book decades ago. He was on a panel. He stated: “Every writer in America should be writing about race. Until we get that figured out, we shouldn’t write about anything else.” Or something like that.
So I come to the book all nescience and I’m reading and I’m like, wait. The first character’s last name is Bryant. In Money, Mississippi. Then comes the character Granny Carolyn—Carolyn Bryant is the notorious white woman who triggered the murder of Emmet Till (I wrote about the commemoration we attended here.). By this point, I’ve already re-read sentences two, three times because they’re so hilarious (the first scene takes place beside an empty aboveground backyard pool in a “suburb” of Money called Small Change.) And I realize: we’re laughing at the folks responsible for Emmett Till’s early, terrible death.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say Caroline and her descendants (as well as J. W. Milam’s descendants) don’t fare well. Death ensues. Two Black Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agents arrive. They become our primary narrators. Eventually, an actual FBI agent joins them. Her name is Herberta, last name Hind. Her parents nicknamed her Herbie. Say her name out loud. Everette is using the “lowest” form of humor as the tool for delivering the highest satire and irony imaginable. It’s not just funny. It’s genius.
The Effect of Everett’s The Trees
Why all this snickering and jewel-like irony? It works to totally castrate the power of the racists. They disintegrate into a laugh and blow away. Left is the honoring of the thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans who other Americans murdered by lynching. (These killings are NOT confined to the South; not in the book, not in real life). Everett’s Trees does what so many books and films don’t: it strips the racists of agency and power.
I will be talking about this dark comic supernatural murder mystery to everyone I meet for a good long while.