Can You Come Back If You Never Really Left?

A Review of Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked

By Justin Lee

A Tree Born Crooked centers on James Hart, a man who escaped his hometown of Crystal Springs to attend flight school. He initially manages to make a go of a life of his choosing. A clean slate of sorts. When his new life doesn’t play out quite like he had hoped, he becomes a mechanic, but he’s just floating through life, rudderless. The more than occasional beer is enough to get him through most of his days but he still never really feels comfortable in his own skin. For my money, his goal of being a pilot reveals something important about his character in a subtle way. He’s always felt disconnected from everyone and held the world at large at a distance. What better way to do that than thirty thousand feet in the air?

James has no intention of ever returning, when he receives a surprising touristy postcard from his family’s gift shop, but instead of good news, it’s notice of his father’s passing. That’s the first clue that things were not great within the Hart family. We get glimpses of his past that indicate why he set his sights on leaving. The people around him, his family and friends, found a way of navigating their small town lives that James just couldn’t hack. From the jump, you get a sense that James doesn’t exactly fit into the lot life had seemingly decided for him.

Crystal Springs is the epitome of a small town whose best days are behind them. The people who live there are eaten up by a small-town ennui that James always feared. James’ baby brother Rabbit is cautionary tale of what was in store for James if he had stayed around. Rabbit is into all kinds of trouble. Drugs, theft, the works. But Rabbit is also angry and jealous that James escaped. He felt behind. Post rounds out the unlikely cast with Marlena who plays another contrast to James. Somebody who grew up in a small town and could see what she potentially was doomed to become if she stayed.

Marlena grew up with James and Rabbit. They knew each other in the way most people in small towns do; their families knew each other. James dated her cousin Adelyn in high school, and Marlena’s father Waylon owns the local bar. Marlena’s parents divorced when she was young. Her father stayed in Crystal Springs while her mother moved out of town. Marlena mainly spent only summers with her dad. But now, she’s back full-time to help him with the bar. The bar that her cousin Adelyn haunts. We are not given much time with her, but Adelyn puts off the vibe of someone who feels as if their yesterdays are all they have. So, she chases them with booze and with chance encounters at the bar and with whatever fills that void just a little bit. Even if it doesn’t last. Adelyn is to Marlena what Rabbit is to James. Both are ghosts of what might have been.

Things heat up once Rabbit takes part in a robbery that inevitably goes wrong and puts everyone in the crosshairs of a local mob outfit. James, Marlena, and Rabbit go on the run.

All of these characters are connected like a clump of roots. Their pasts wrap around each other and despite how they might grow; there is still something pulling them together. James plans on breaking free once again until Rabbit asks him to stick around to help with a strip club robbery. It should go without saying that things do not go according to plan. An innocent is killed. The money belongs to a local mob outfit. There is blood in the water and the only way to play it safe is for James, Marlena, and Rabbit to run.

Grit lit can be all blood and guns, but Steph Post has a skillfully delicate touch, which is distinctive for a story with this much adrenaline. James, Marlena, and Rabbit could be cardboard cutout characters cracking quips while kicking all kinds of Southern-fried ass. While there may be plenty of rambunctiousness, that’s not the whole story. The real story is what happens between these three characters while they try to survive, dodging people by hiding out in greasy motel rooms.

James is a round peg trying to fit in a square hole. He’s never found his place in life. He’s built himself up as this macho, tough as nails guy in order to hide the fact that he’s scared. He’s scared of letting life happen to him. He’s scared to be himself and to open up to people and to feel all those things that come with it. The losses and disappointments of life are a lot easier to take if you build strong walls against your own feelings and stave off connection with others. In that way, he didn’t need to worry about Crystal Springs trapping him because his own choices have trapped him within himself.

Marlena has some pretty striking similarities to James while at the same time, she’s a counterpoint to him in fundamental ways. Where James is wrapped up internally like a coil, Marlena is like a warm blanket. She is welcoming and feels whole even if she thinks differently than the people she’s known her entire life. There is a moment where James describes a dream of his to Marlena that’s central to the novel’s theme.  He sees himself in the dream as a tree that has been struck by lightning and says “I’m just broken. And I know that I’m gonna keep on growing, but only crooked.” Marlena replies with something an aunt had taught her: “A tree born crooked never could grow straight.” I took that to mean that it’s far better to know your damage and to embrace it than it is to just run away from everything. Even yourself. Marlena has welcomed the forms of crookedness in her life whereas James insists on resisting, and lamenting, his.

Rabbit is the wild card of the three. Is he objectively the root cause of everyone’s problems? Yes. Does he bring about most of his own misfortune? Oh yeah. But, the more time we spend with him, the more and more we see how so much of what makes Rabbit so wild and so desperate to catch his lucky break is: there’s emptiness in him, too. Even though he fits in with more of the Crystal Springs aesthetic, his life is not the one he wanted and it creates a need he fills with booze and drugs.

The beauty of A Tree Born Crooked, what makes the hits so hard and the quiet moments so resonant, flows from Post’s knack for pulling against genre norms. While this story has all of the dressings of a standard ‘grit-lit’ tale, never once did I feel like I was separated from the interior lives of these characters. So we have plenty of grim and gritty in this novel, while Post portrays lives that earn our understanding and empathy. Instead of resting on genre laurels, her interest here seems to be in peeling away layers from characters. Asking us to see them flaws and all and to not look away. Empathy and Grit: the stuff legends are made of in regional fiction. 

A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post

Justin Lee

Justin Lee lives with his family in East Tennessee. He is an Ex-Correctional Officer and is currently working towards becoming a Social Worker. His fiction has appeared in Punk Noir Magazine.