Book Review: Harry’s Trees

I wish I could remember what tenuous path of book-breadcrumbs led me to pick up a copy of Harry’s Trees, a novel published in 2018 by Jon Cohen that must’ve been a challenge to categorize. It certainly wouldn’t turn up in a search for coastal fiction; the only water that appears either falls from the sky, is collected from a spring, or lies stagnant at the bottom of an abandoned quarry.

And yet I found myself completely lost in this story of a guilt-stricken young widower named Harry who, a year after losing his wife to a random tragedy, stumbles onto an unexpected windfall and blindly flees his soul-crushing job at the US Forest Service in Philadelphia. “Suspended in an awful and unnatural calm, Harry stepped out of his cubicle into the cramped aisle. He turned in a slow 360. He heard something, coming from deep within the endless forest of cubicles. Not the hum of computers and printers but the whisper of leaves. Trees, he thought. Trees. To the forest and the trees.”

His flight brings him to a forest in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. “He had managed this stretch of the Appalachians by computer for over a decade. Of course he would end up here. Treeless words that had crowded his brain for too long—forest resource utilization, sustainable harvest, inventory and analysis, development and evaluation—receded.” They were replaced by “Fire cherry. Pignut hickory. Sagbark hickory… the old familiar names summoning the woodland sanctuary of his childhood, when he climbed high up in the branches of the giant beech in his front yard and imagined the trees going on forever in all directions, and he safely in the center. His shaded escape, the forest he had spent a lifetime trying to reach.”

Nothing less random than an empty gas tank alert determines Harry’s actual exit off the highway, into a particular section of this forest that he’s spent a decade studying on a computer screen. We’ve already met ten year old Oriana and her mother Amanda, so we recognize their house when Harry drives by it, though he only has eyes for the trees.

Oriana and Amanda lost their father/husband in a freak accident on the same day Harry lost his wife, and they’ve also spent the past year overwhelmed by grief. For very different reasons, they each see Harry as a link back to that father/husband. So when he suggests he live in their (illegal) treehouse to perform an official “on-site evaluation” of the trees (Harry’s cover story for wanting to stay and explore), they agree. Toss in a small town with an ancient librarian, a dairy farmer who likes cows better than people, and a money-grubbing realtor—as well as a viral news story that eventually brings Harry’s bully of a brother to town—and soon everyone is propelled toward a very different future.

Sounds crazy, right? And I haven’t even mentioned that the entire plot hinges on Olive the librarian (“a sharp-boned seventy-nine years old”), and the handmade fairy tale she recommends to Oriana. “Another thing Oriana liked about Olive was that she greeted you with a handshake like you were a grown-up, and she let you call her by her first name. ‘That’s what names are for,’ Olive explained. ‘If you don’t use them, they wither and blow away on the western wind.’ Which was yet another thing Oriana liked—Olive talked like a book. …Compared to Olive, other adults spoke in grunts.” 

Oriana is deeply moved by the strange tale, but it’s not until the fable touches other readers that all the jigsaw pieces inevitably fall into place. “What other function do books have, the great ones, but to change the reader? Books to comfort. But most of all, books to disturb you forward.” Disturb you forward: exactly what this quiet novel has done for me.

A warning to other writers: Many rules were broken in these pages. Head-jumping (a quick change in perspective from one character to another) is strictly verboten by the experts, because it makes a reader work way too hard to figure out whose eyes they’re now looking through. Somehow Cohen makes this no-no work, allowing us to pivot quickly from one viewpoint to another—even within the constraints of a single paragraph.  I did have to go back and reread a few sections, and a few were just plain over-written. I also wished I’d learned about that incredible tree house a bit earlier. But those were all just pesky details, insignificant compared to the pleasure of reveling in rich prose that led to a tight, satisfying, ending.

When I was not quite halfway through reading this book, I tried to describe Harry’s Trees to friends. I could see the thought-clouds forming above their heads: “This sounds WAY too strange.” Even after finishing, I wondered how to convey the magic of this story and how it “fell” together, as each character made seemingly logical decisions that eventually jigsawed into a happy but believable future for almost everyone. This review is an attempt at that, as well as an attempt to bring Harry’s Trees more readers—though I doubt it will make much of a dent in either.

We can’t help but bring our own perspectives to what we read, which is why a book that touches our hearts in August might fall flat when we try to reread it the following December. I’m so glad this whimsical yet well-grounded story found me at exactly the right time—even if I don’t remember how I found it. I can’t promise you will love it as much as I did, but if you’re looking for something completely different—and yet, somehow, quite familiar and personal—you’ll find it in the pages of Harry’s Trees.

Have a novel that touched you recently, for reasons you can’t quite explain? Add it to the comments below, or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

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