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Caleb Johnson, Treeborne: A Novel (New York: Picador, 2018), pp. 304

Caleb Johnson’s debut novel, Treeborne (Picador, 2018), begins and ends with a flood of biblical proportions.  When the De Soto dam in Elberta, Alabama breaks, it conquers everything in its path—everything, that is, except for a book of stories.  After finishing the novel, I pictured Elberta covered with water, all but lost to history, and a book floating in the waves, tangled in tall tree branches—treeborne, so to speak—surviving the catastrophe, monumentalizing the space precisely by being caught up in its reaching clutches, as rooted in the land as the tree whose branches it inhabits.  The words survive; we hold them in our hands, and we see the town through the murky deep water—even though, indeed, some of the stories add to the murkiness.  Like the artist Hugh Treeborne who crafts unique “assemblies” pieced together from whatever he finds in the landscape, from fish gills to mushrooms to windowglass, Johnson assembles unique narratives to make a work of art drawn from his imagination and from years spent growing up in Alabama listening to family stories.

To a large degree, Treeborne resists neat and tidy categorization, much like Hugh’s “assemblies.”  At one point in the novel, Hugh’s wife, Maybelle, puzzles over how to name his peculiar creations: “She wondered what to call it.  Not paintings, not sculptures.  A mix.  She had no word” (107); similarly, Johnson’s book remains a bit hard to sum up.  Eschewing temporal order, it moves between the past and the present, from 1929 to 1958 to today, and focuses primarily on the Treeborne family and their land, the seven hundred acres—“The Seven”—that family patriarch Hugh Treeborne populates with his eccentric works of art pieced together from “what the land offered and what he saw in his head” (83).  But while Hugh might be the patriarch of the Treeborne family, he’s certainly not the central character: Johnson’s story attends heavily to the lives of three women—Treeborne’s wife, Maybelle, his daughter, Tammy, and his granddaughter, Janie—and a black guitar player named Lee Malone who comes to own a peach orchard and who forms an important attachment to Maybelle (readers will discover the precise nature of that attachment).  By focusing on a diverse set of characters, specifically women and an African-American musician, Johnson adds a significant new novel to the Southern literary tradition.  During a talk with Johnson at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh in June 2018, I learned that Johnson owes much of his inspiration to the women he grew up with, a fact echoed in his dedication page for the novel: “For the women who raised me up in stories—Debra Johnson and Celia Sampley.”  As I note later on this review, Johnson also draws inspiration from African-American artist Thornton Dial, a fact which I also learned from attending his talk.  His indebtedness to Dial and the women in his life is, I think, quite clear in his novel, and adds to its stunning complexity.  If Treeborne remains hard to sum up, it’s because it spins such a complex web in which each character remains vital to the community that unfolds before our eyes, an ecology as tangled and rich as the deep woods of Alabama that the characters inhabit. 

Important moments in the novel can, however, be outlined by the reader.  Janie, the last of the Treebornes, determines to stay on her peach orchard property even after “The Authority” (3) (an unclear entity but those who are apparently in charge of the town) determines to destroy the Hernando De Soto dam before it falls apart with the weathering of time; the novel opens with her speaking to a young man interviewing her, and many of the following chapters detail her involvement in the kidnapping of her Aunt Tammy, a woman who dreams of going to Hollywood and who attempts to kill Lee Malone, whom she wrongly believes killed her mother, Maybelle.  After being toted to a cave by a couple of older kids essentially hired by Janie, Tammy escapes and, determined to “bring [Hollywood] to Elberta,” decides to build a drive-in theater on her father’s property (231).  Tammy then writes and directs a film about Hernando De Soto’s exploration of the area, casting the local townspeople as explorers and Native Americans (with Janie herself cast as an Indian princess).  In the midst of filming this homegrown movie and building the theater, an archeological dig (led, significantly, by a woman) gets underway on the Seven. Human remains have been discovered—remains interred by Hugh in an effort to save them from being flooded when the De Soto dam was built.  While much of the novel focuses on Janie’s role in kidnapping her aunt and her subsequent hiding out in the woods—all the while carrying along one of Hugh’s pieces, a dirt doll named Crusoe (whom she must constantly repair)—it also details the stories of Maybelle and Hugh and Lee, three characters whose intervolved lives are as much a part of the land Janie hides out on as the trees and hollers.  Framing all of these stories is Janie, old and being interviewed by a young man who is interested in learning more about Elberta.  Insofar as the novel is about anything, it’s fair to say that it’s about any number of things: memory, heartache, desire, aspirations, place, love, hate, belonging.  As with the “assemblies,” it’s difficult to pin just any one word to it.  Furthermore, the novel’s magical realism makes it even more difficult to place as it hovers between the this-worldly and the other-worldly, particularly with respect to Crusoe, Hugh’s “masterpiece” (98).

By the time I finished this novel, I myself felt somehow deeply, tactilely connected to Elberta, Alabama, a fictional place made real by stories and—somehow, paradoxically—by its surreality.  Perhaps it’s all the more apt that Elberta, Alabama does in fact exist, despite Johnson’s initial understanding, a fact I learned when I attended the talk with Johnson at Quail Ridge Books.  Johnson had originally chosen a name for a town in Alabama that he did not think existed; when, deep into the writing of the novel, he learned of the tiny real town of Elberta, situated approximately 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, he was disappointed, but he also knew he couldn’t change the name—too much of the story, he noted, was attached to it.  Johnson’s Elberta is not the same Elberta one can drive through today, but it is just as real, so vividly does he portray everything and everyone in the town. 

If the “Treebornes [were] just a step above white trash to begin with” (21), Johnson does not necessarily redeem them but instead crafts their stories in such a way that the otherworldly shines through; presenting them as they are, Johnson nevertheless manages to show what might otherwise go unnoticed.  There are a number of such moments scattered throughout the text that suddenly shift our perception.  Janie thinks about her father’s old truck and suddenly we wade into deep regret: “‘You want to talk regret?  Let’s talk how much I wish I’d kept Daddy’s pickup after he died.  Shit, I can’t even remember how I spent the money I got from selling it’” (88).  Later, speaking to the young man interviewing her: “‘Me and Aunt Tammy was more alike than I cared admitting for a long long time’ . . . ‘Now you don’t understand something like that in one swooft moment.  It’s the piling on of moment after moment strung out across all damn-blasted time that leads to what you call true understanding, which don’t always amount to how you wished it’d be’” (189).  Maybelle sits on Hugh’s fire escape one evening and eats a peach, “tast[ing] things in its flesh that she could not name” (108). Hugh recalls a conversation with his father, Caz, “covered with bloodred mud” from the Seven: “‘I been out hunting gold,’ Caz announced. ‘And, son, I have seen a big-old wall holding back a mountain of water and one day that mountain’s bound to crumble upon us.’ ‘What you mean Daddy?’ ‘The Lord said, ‘Behold, that which I built I’ll break down, and that which I planted will one day yank up by the roots, even all this land’” (151). Lee Malone, returning from playing a dead man’s guitar plucked from floodwaters to inmates in the local jail, thinks, “We’re all of us barreling on in fits and starts toward some inevitable conclusion . . . .  Seems the trick, he thought to hisself, the world going past outside the car window, is being alright with that” (263). Ricky Birdsong, former Elberta County High School Conquistador football player now limping through life from an injury, walks with Jesus (yes, that Jesus), who “looked no different from the bullshitters sitting in the booth” at a local diner (278), and tries to do a different kind of flying, but this time not speeding across a football field to great applause as he had done countless times before. Treeborne is filled with moments like these, ones that cause the reader to pause in astonishment because they are so unexpected and because they so radically alter our perception of what has come before and what follows.  “‘I reckon I just enjoy wanting and loss,’” Janie tells the young man interviewing her as she bites into a peach (190).  Such depths of yearning and pain crop up consistently throughout the novel, and yet each time they are a new revelation for the reader.

Localized moments like these (and many, many others in the text) contribute to the sheer vividness of the novel as a whole, adding a whole new dimension to the term “local color.”  I was prepared for such moments when I opened the front cover of my advanced reader’s copy and read editor Elizabeth Bruce’s letter to the reader, in which she notes how Johnson’s “language, so stunning in its inventiveness, transforms these ordinary lives into something extraordinary.  Or, perhaps, more accurate, it reminds me that there is no such thing as an ordinary life, and that remembering—be it a person, a place, or a place’s strange and terrible history—is an immeasurable responsibility.”  Drawing our attention to remarkable phrases in the novel, Bruce does well to note Johnson’s uncanny ability to see the “ordinary” as something more, or to see how “ordinary life” perhaps doesn’t necessarily exist.  But, as I read the novel, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Johnson in fact shows us that it is within ordinariness that the most extraordinary lives, or that it is within ordinariness that (as if by magic) the sublime enters; in other words, the novel does perhaps seem to say that there is “such [a] thing as an ordinary life,” and its ordinariness is precisely what makes it “extraordinary.”  Indeed, something as ordinary as dirt becomes, in Johnson’s adept hands, more than what the reader might have at first thought possible, not only with respect to the key figure of Crusoe the dirt doll, but also with respect to the human characters too, who, as all the corpses on Hugh’s land remind us, are also of the earth. 

The revelatory moments spread throughout add to the visionary quality of Treeborne, the way it builds a new way of seeing the world as each story accretes upon other stories in an almost geological fashion.  During his talk at Quail Ridge Books, Johnson noted the influence of African-American artist Thornton Dial and Baptist preacher/folk artist Howard Finster on Treeborne—both of whom are typically cast as “outsider” artists whose work has visionary scope.  Like Dial and Finster, Hugh Treeborne creates art wholly unique and rooted in local materials and simply can’t seem to stop, creating and creating until he fills his tract of seven hundred acres entirely: “Digging was in his blood.  Jarred awake, he’d return to the studio and assemblie till his eyes ached and his hands wouldn’t do right.  This penance also pleasure” (79).  Constantly seeking something eternal through the meshing together of the ephemeral, Hugh strives until even his insides yearn to take flight: “If you could see Hugh’s innards, Doc Barfield had said, it would look like his lungs and stomach had grown wings upon wings just waiting to open up and fly” (303).  Lee Malone channels the same kind of irrepressible flight within his music: “The songs Lee Malone sang belonged neither to him nor to anybody else.  Melodies and words shifted, music a living thing thrumming unseen throughout the air” (262).  Through their propensity for assembly and creation, Dial, Finster, Hugh Treeborne, Lee Malone, and Johnson himself all draw our attention to things turned inside out, the organs, so to speak, exposed to view.  “My art is the evidence of my freedom,” Dial asserted (201): “When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up.  When I get ready for that, I already got my idea for it.  I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere.  I gather up things from around.  I see the piece in my mind before I start, but after you start making it you see more that need to go in it.  It’s just like inventing something” (201).  For Dial as an African-American artist, assemblage carries even more significance: “I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good but once they got the service out of them they throwed them away.  So I pick it up and make something new out of it.  That’s why we pick up these things.  Negroes done learned how to pick up old things and make them brand-new.  They had to learn them things to survive, and they done got wiser for doing . . . .  You call that ‘smart.’” (201-202).  “Art is future life” (202) Dial argued: “I always be looking to the future” (221).  Lee Malone also looks to the future as he holds the flood-salvaged guitar and thinks about his father playing music: “Lee never knew where beyond his daddy these songs came from.  As he got older he realized their origin didn’t much matter so long as the songs rolled on toward the future—just like they’d been doing for ages on end. . . .  He hummed and hummed and he mumbled till far-flung parts of hisself began coming together” (255).      

Howard Finster, too, had an irrepressible desire to create art from found materials, filling gardens upon gardens with his eccentric creations.  Starting with a museum exhibit in a garden in Trion, Georgia, Finster sought to collect together “the inventions o’ mankind” until he “run outta land” (101).  Eventually Finster devoted himself to making art as a result of a vision: “. . . one day I was workin’ on a patch job on a bicycle, and I was rubbin’ some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o’ my finger, and there was a human face on it.  I could see it plain as day.  And right then a warm feelin’ come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Paint sacred art’” (123). From that point forward, Finster produced thousands of paintings in addition to sculptures for his “Paradise Garden,” which people can still visit today.  Like Hugh, Finster sought to fill this space with as many objects—including human remains—and works of art as possible: “At first people laughed at me for buildin’ this garden.  They thought I was crazy for doin’ this, and they laughed at me, just like they laughed at Noah when he was buildin’ the Ark” (116).  As the De Soto dam construction is underway in the novel, Hugh one day realizes that part of the river will flood an old cemetery.  He decides to carry the decomposing bodies to his property, to safety.  Like Finster and Noah, he seems “crazy for doin’ this.”

Readers familiar with the novels of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez will recognize the influence of these writers on Treeborne. Johnson’s novel is a hybrid, of sorts, a work clearly adding to a literary family tree whose roots go deep.  Vividly portraying the generations of a particular place and imbuing it with elements of magical realism, Johnson stakes his claim as a writer following in a particular lineage even while uniquely transforming it.  Like Faulkner and Márquez, Johnson creates a fictional place haunted by the past and a foundational patriarchal figure; but while Johnson clearly draws inspiration from these two authors in particular, he also marks his story with elements that are certainly his own.  He fuses Southern Gothic with magical realism all the while marking them both with an interest in religion and the sacred.  Most strikingly, he offers a moving meditation on his own role as an author through Hugh Treeborne—whose real name is (tellingly) Jesse Absalom Treeborne.  One chapter, titled “In the Beginning,” remains particularly key on this point.  Here Johnson tells the story of Hugh Treeborne’s endeavors on the seven hundred acres he calls his own—which calls to mind Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen and his one-hundred-acre plantation in Mississippi.  While Sutpen tries to populate his land with sons, Hugh is more intent on populating the Seven with works of art.  Working alongside Crusoe, the dirt doll that Janie carries and repairs, Hugh labors on a piece inspired by his visit to the De Soto statue in Elberta:

The assemblie had to do with De Soto’s boyhood home.  Horses.  Wouldn’t Spain have some kind of a desert?  Hugh found his materials strewn all over the Elberta Valley.  Felt like the land was offering up things, urging him to make art.  Not even make, but frame, assemble.  That’s how he’d come up with the word for the things he made.  Crusoe came along on these walks and worked kindly like a magnet sometimes.  The Elberta River too carried objects up onto its banks and into the woods when it flooded in early spring.  The wind blew things down, rearranged what was already there.  Pounding rain could unbury something lost.  Most folks never noticed.  You had to look.  So much was thrown out, even during these tough times.  Hugh gathered and assembled these objects to resemble the images filling his head, and when he was finished, he toted his assemblies off in the woods and left them there. (78)

Like Hugh, Johnson sees what “[m]ost folks” do not see, “assembl[ing]” stories and persons in such a way that they become something wholly and artistically unique.  Hugh occupies the position of not just a human patriarch but also a God-like figure: working on the Seven, “in the beginning” he shapes clay and dirt into new life—including the doll Crusoe, whom he gives a voice. I found myself most taken by this dirt doll; in fact, the most surprising moment of the novel involved Crusoe (a crucial moment I’ll leave to readers to discover).  I initially suspected that Johnson named this primitive work of art after Robinson Crusoe—an apt decision, I thought, given the novel’s frequent mentioning of De Soto and early Native American inhabitants of the land.  I learned from Johnson himself, however, that he only named the doll this because he simply liked the sound of it.  It just so happens that Hugh’s “masterpiece” (98) shares the same name as that early fictional castaway.  Since happenstance forms a crucial component of the book, it’s all the more apt that one of the central figures happens to evoke Defoe’s novel: indeed, in both works, characters (including Crusoe, the doll) are exiled in a wilderness and are given something like redemption. 

Johnson’s talent clearly lies in crafting and pulling together stories that not only cohere flawlessly despite their a-chronological order but that also draw the reader in with their moving power.  At one point, Maybelle watches Hugh craft an assembly: “Each movement of his hands, minute though they were, called to mind the shifting of the earth” (205).  So too does the movement of Johnson’s novel remind us afresh of the monumental power and magic that can unfold from the shaping power of words penned by human hands.  Treeborne is a novel that both pays homage to and re-imagines Southern literature, and for that reason it deserves to be enjoyed and savored by the reader.  Like the legendarily juicy peaches you can find only in Alabama, Johnson’s novel is one-of-a-kind, sweet, and altogether ripe for the picking. 

Books References in addition to Treeborne
Arnett, William and Paul. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art. Volume II. Atlanta:
Tinwood Books, 2001

Finster, Howard. Stranger from Another World: Man of Visions Now on this Earth. As told to Tom
Patterson. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989

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