A swirl of regrets: Asheville author Heather Newton’s debut novel reveals a mountain family
by Rob Neufeld
Martin, the prodigal son, keeps falling on his face, often because of drink. Bertie, a sister-in-law, suffers curses—including a no-good son—because of a rash act she’d once committed. Ivy, a sister, sees ghosts and is considered unfit to mother her children.
Meet the Owenby family of Willoby County, western North Carolina, the stars of Asheville author Heather Newton’s debut novel, “Under the Mercy Trees.” The clan of about ten, plus several friends, come into view just as they get the news that Leon, the oldest son, has gone missing.
The stations of this mystery provide the bases for family drama and a crop of recollections. The second station (number one was the search party) involves the cleaning of Leon’s hermitage, the old family home.
“How your folks doing, Bertie? I heard your daddy was ailing,” Eugenia Owenby asks James’ wife, Bertie, as she gets in her car to go to the cleaning.
“Eugenia knew full well that what ailed Bertie’s daddy was the drink,” Newton writes in a chapter that belongs to Bertie’s point of view. (Three other points of view alternate with hers over forty-one chapters.)
“Your family is certainly blessed with longevity,” Eugenia comments.
“What Eugenia meant was, weren’t Bertie’s mama and daddy ever going to die off so Bertie and James could move into their house?”
What about Martin
The Owenbys are seriously ailing despite being populated by mostly good-hearted people and loved by some very stable ones—including Liza, Martin’s high school girlfriend; and Hodge, the EMS chief and Martin’s best friend.
Here’s one of the curious things about the novel. You can tilt your head one way and see it swirling around several characters; and tilt it another and feel that Martin is the main focus. I don’t find it confusing, and therefore I find it a marvel.
Newton opens her story with a Martin moment—an enigmatic scene lifted out of the ensuing context and made symbolic.
“August 1955,” the section is headed. “That last night at Rendezvous Falls, the Ford Sunliner seemed to drive itself, the engine so powerful it felt as if some force were pulling them up the mountain.”
Martin’s with Liza, and it’s clear that fate is involved in the drive. Martin will exhibit, we learn later, a critical failure to act. Is his plight more significant that Bertie’s, Ivy’s, or Leon’s? I’m not sure, but I am sure that Newton has gotten me involved in her characters.
It also seems that by gaining interest in the others, we sacrifice a piece of Martin’s story—the middle of his life. He left high school adored by a great woman and expected to be a major playwright; he came back a jobless drunk. He published several plays, and the only clue we get about his downfall is that his Southern style—“Faulknerian decrepitude,” as Allen Ginsberg had called it in New York—had gone out of fashion.
Maybe it’s unfair to want the writer’s story. I also wanted more moments of triumph. “Under the Mercy Trees” is a haunted and somber tale, and Newton has done a brilliant job creating one character—Ivy—whose regular ghost sightings add depth. But do not expect the constant punching wit of Dorothy Allison in “Bastard out of Carolina”” or Frank McCourt in “Angela’s Ashes.”
Magical trees and trucks
The genesis of the “Mercy Trees” family drama is classic—a cruel father and a long-suffering mother. The middle is fertile; and the various endings, emotional.
The plot, after character introductions, moves quickly with dialogue and memories. And at times, Newton is visionary.
When Liza drives past a school which she’d entered as a newcomer at age twelve, she recalls befriending Martin, a soul mate. She takes him to her secret place, reached by a deer path and through rhododendron thickets.
“It was a sanctuary. Soft grass the greenest she had ever seen carpeted the aisles,” Newton writes. “All around, mature hardwoods grew bent in the shapes of chairs, up, then sideways, then up again, a dozen giant church ladies sitting down.”
The place represents nature’s solace, always present in the mountains. And the trees symbolize growth after trauma.
Why HarperCollins chose to put a picture of a foot dipping into water on the cover instead of one of the bent trees, I don’t know. It is the same exact foot, ripple, and reflection that are on the 2004 hardcover edition of Ron Rash’s “Saints at the River.”
If you want to see a bent tree, go to Newtown’s website, www.heathernewton.net.
Symbolism can be a ton of fun in “Mercy Trees.” Leon’s truck, which Martin uses when he returns to the land of broken dreams, is a hunk of personality.
“Leon’s boxy 1968 Chevy pickup truck sat forlornly under an old cherry tree…the driver’s door was secured with a coat hanger.” The cab had a dead mouse smell from when Leon had trapped one in a Dr. Pepper bottle after it had crawled into the seat cushion.”
Martin “took the steering wheel and gazed out on the hood, stretching for miles in front of him.” He started the engine. Leon had had a race car motor installed. The radio was stuck on a Christian music station, and the knob was broken off.
“The truck surged down the mountain, throwing gravel, with Martin hanging on tight. On impulse, he yelled out the window a long ‘Yee-hah!’ He now had a vehicle, or maybe it had him.”
More of that, please—to go with the genuine hauntedness.
BOOK REVIEWEDUnder the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton (HarperCollins trade paper original, 2011, 348 pages, $13.99).