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Leon Forrest: There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden

The book was rejected several times (including by its eventual publisher) before it was finally published by Random House and you can see why. It is written in an oral style, bits of sentences, long paragraphs and lots of ellipses which doesn’t always make for easy reading. It is divided into six sections, telling the story of Nathaniel (Turner) Witherspoon. The first section is called Lives and recounts the brief biographies of the main characters, from the introduction to Witherspoon and his issues with his father and the loss of his mother to the succinct summation of the life of Goodwin”Stale-Bread” Winters – Died of an overdose of heroin, 1962. Jamestown Fishbond (Wanted Dead or Alive) is another character with a long entry. He struggles with his religion (condemning God, yet thanking him) but is also aware of the legacy of racial hatred, back to the Confederacy and early slavery. He also has a criminal record. The section ends with a biography of Lincoln, who is revered for having freed the slaves and is equated with Jesus.

The remaining sections focus more on Nathan himself, though the other characters appear in his narrative. He is with his aunt Breedlove in a funeral cortege going to his mother’s funeral. He describes what he sees from the car but, at the same time, he tells about his own inner journey. Using the same oral techniques, he fuses both religious imagery and the history of blacks in the United States. As the epigraph is from Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit, it is apparent that the emphasis is on the suffering of his people. It culminates in a vision where the crucifixion and a lynching are merged in a form of redemption. It ends with a section called Transformation, a letter from Sweetie Reed, Nathan’s grandmother, to then President Lyndon Johnson, replying to his letter congratulating her on her hundredth birthday and giving him a lot of grandmotherly advice.

Does it work? It is not an easy read but it certainly makes its point if you stay with it and prefigures some of the themes we will see in Divine Days. The individual sections as much as the whole are what makes the novel work, as Forrest’s skill in bringing out both the individual as well as the collective journeys is paramount.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Random House