Treeborne: A Novel

Treeborne: A Novel

by Caleb Johnson


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"I can’t remember the last time I read a book I wish so much I’d written. Treeborne is beautiful, and mythic in ways I would never have been able to imagine...I can’t say enough about this book."—Daniel Wallace, national bestselling author of Extraordinary Adventures and Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions

An Honorable Mention for the Southern Book Prize


One of Southern Living's "Best New Books Coming Out Summer 2018" and one of Library Journal's "Books to Get Now"

Janie Treeborne lives on an orchard at the edge of Elberta, Alabama, and in time, she has become its keeper. A place where conquistadors once walked, and where the peaches they left behind now grow, Elberta has seen fierce battles, violent storms, and frantic change—and when the town is once again threatened from without, Janie realizes it won’t withstand much more. So she tells the story of its people: of Hugh, her granddaddy, determined to preserve Elberta’s legacy at any cost; of his wife, Maybelle, the postmaster, whose sudden death throws the town into chaos; of her lover, Lee Malone, a black orchardist harvesting from a land where he is less than welcome; of the time when Janie kidnapped her own Hollywood-obsessed aunt and tore the wrong people apart.

As the world closes in on Elberta, Caleb Johnson’s debut novel lifts the veil and offers one last glimpse. Treeborne is a celebration and a reminder: of how the past gets mixed up in thoughts of the future; of how home is a story as much as a place.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

★ 04/23/2018
Using language rich as mulch, debut author Johnson tells the superb saga of three generations of Treebornes, who live near the town of Elberta in the southern reaches of Georgia. Janie Treeborne narrates much of the story, tripping through time beginning with the days of her grandaddy Hugh, forced by circumstance to join the Authority, behemoth builder of a modern dam. So as not to forget how things once were, Hugh becomes a maker of a strange art he calls “assemblies,” figures made of mud, spiders’ webs, and gears. His wife is Janie’s beloved MawMaw, the postmaster Maybelle; she is in love with Lee Malone, the “man with the blue arms” who sings like an angel and tends orchards as old as the conquistador Hernando DeSoto. When Janie’s aunt and uncle threaten to sell off and clear the ancient forest once home to her beloved grandparents, Janie and her friends kidnap her aunt to try to stop them, and she goes on the lam in the company of a magical doll made of dirt. Johnson’s pervasive use of the colloquial, even when narrating, never gets irritating. Metaphors abound, and it isn’t a coincidence the Treebornes’ town shares a person’s name; the whole place is as alive as if it walked on two feet. Sentence by loamy sentence, this gifted author digs up corpses and upends trees to create a place laden with magic and memory. (June)

From the Publisher

"If Daniel Wallace says he wishes he’d written it, then we want to read it."Deep South magazine (Summer Reading List)

"A story about complicated legacies and the people who bring to life the places we call home."Southern Living (Best New Books Coming Out This Summer)

"Richly rewarding...The entire novel brims with vibrant language that takes hold of readers and refuses to let go."Chicago Review of Books

"A tale that's full of eccentricity, Southern Gothic overtones, and poetry."The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A one-of-a-kind story."—Donna Everhart, New York Journal of Books

“These characters, each in their own way, will break your heart. They’re a testament to Johnson, who has created an entire town you can’t help but feel like you’ve been to before, filled with people you can’t help but feel you know.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"In his debut novel, Johnson has conjured a stunning account of the Treeborne family of Elberta, Alabama, creating an immersive sense of both time and place as he probes the memories and resentments that linger among the town's residents over the course of decades...Majestic in scope, jam-packed with revelations and a touch of the fantastical, Treeborne is an enthralling story about what binds people together and breaks them apart."Booklist (Starred Review)

"Superb...It isn't a coincidence the Treebornes' town shares a person's name; the whole place is as alive as if it walked on two feet. Sentence by loamy sentence, this gifted author digs up corpses and upends trees to create a place laden with magic and memory."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"Johnson's gem of a novel tells of a place and its people so vivid and real that readers won't want their stories to end."Library Journal (Starred Review)

"I can’t remember the last time I read a book I wish so much I’d written. Treeborne is beautiful, and mythic in ways I would never have been able to imagine...It reminds me of one of my favorite books, Light in August. The language is so fresh and real, and the characters are as well. I can’t say enough about this book."—Daniel Wallace, author of Extraordinary Adventures and Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions

"In Treeborne, Caleb Johnson spins an artful, intricate web of a place—its rich history and memorable characters caught and held there by stories told and secrets withheld. Suspenseful and immensely satisfying."—Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life

"Treeborne is a remarkable first novel: poetic, funny, and populated by particular, fully alive characters. Caleb Johnson has a wonderful ear for the rhythm and diction of Southern voices. He knows how to light on just the right detail of place, time and person. Watching how the intertwined interests of the land, of the past, and of a family play out makes the novel compelling from start to finish."—Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others and Stone Arabia

"You’re going to want [Treeborne] on your bookshelf for a long time...The real pleasure here is the way in which the book immerses you into this place and with this eccentric cast of Southern if these vivid stories are being passed down directly to [the reader]."

"[Treeborne] is deeply rooted in the Southern literature tradition, peopled with eccentric characters and spiked with a dash of the gothic...In vivid and often lyrical language, [Johnson] affirms that, for some, geography and destiny are inevitably joined."Asheville Citizen-Times

"A summer novel that deserves a spot on every Southerner’s shelf."Augusta Chronicle

"[A] fascinating debut novel...Read this book carefully or else you will miss [the] important parts."The Pilot (Southern Pines)

"Johnson’s prose can soar to poetic heights...A lyrical effusion deeply rooted in place and steeped in quirky characters."Kirkus Reviews

"Caleb Johnson's writing makes you yearn for a place that never was. Elberta, Alabama is so vivid, so alive, you can smell the peaches ripening in the orchard."—Daren Wang, author of The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

"Every now and again a powerful new voice bursts into song and begins to sing stories we can’t do without. Caleb Johnson's is such a voice. The characters and desires of Treeborne will wrap themselves around you tighter than any wild vine. And the setting of Elberta, Alabama will call out to you like a long-lost home. This novel is a gripping, entrancing debut by one whirlwind of a writer."—Alyson Hagy, author of Scribe and Boleto

"What a marvel of a novel this is. Treeborne’s sentences are taut, its situations engrossing, its characters absolutely and indelibly engaging. Caleb Johnson’s debut is a deep-dig, history-rich, story-soaked beauty."—Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome

“Caleb Johnson is as much a prophet of his place and time as was Larry Brown of north Mississippi, as Cormac McCarthy of his native Knoxville, Tennessee, Marquez of his homegrown, fictional Macondo. He is ‘Treeborne.’ This is a novel born of a deep, affectionate, and wise knowledge of a place and its people, its history, and its rich and complicated wildness. And its innate tendency to recognize and heighten the mysterious and strange in the ordinary, everyday. He manipulates and maneuvers narrative masterfully.”—Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane

“This boy cannot only write with beauty about how things are in the Deep South, he can write with an eerie feel for the way they used to be. I’ve heard a lot of great old editors say that you can’t teach writing, that it’s born. Caleb Johnson can make you believe it.”—Rick Bragg, author of My Southern Journey and All Over but the Shoutin'

Library Journal

★ 05/01/2018
Shifting between the 1920s and contemporary times, Johnson's first novel peels back layers in the lives of three generations of the Treeborne family of dying Elberta, AL. Elderly Janie Treeborne, who's being interviewed by a young man, wants to record her life story. Her 700-acre family homestead, the Seven, will soon disappear underwater because the Hernando de Soto Dam is failing. Janie at first refuses to relocate. Her granddaddy Hugh worked on the dam in 1929 but secretly moved coffins to the Treeborne woods from an overlooked cemetery soon to be flooded. With Hugh's assemblies of mud, colored glass, and found objects, the Seven becomes a tourist attraction. His widow, Maybelle, dies suddenly, which throws suspicion on her lover, Lee Malone, a black orchardist never quite welcome in Elberta. As a child, Janie is bored and lonely, and her mischief extends to kidnapping her Hollywood-obsessed Aunt Tammy, a scheme that backfires horribly. Other quirky residents richly enhance Janie's tales, and through their stories, the full range of Elberta's offbeat history unfolds. VERDICT Johnson's gem of a novel tells of a place and its people so vivid and real that readers won't want their stories to end.—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO

Kirkus Reviews

A debut Southern novel, like many in that tradition, which is rooted in place, populated by eccentric characters, and filled with a certain amount of gothic weirdness.The narrative spans about 80 years and starts in the present day, when Janie Treeborne is being interviewed about her life and times. She lives alone in a house on the edge of a peach orchard in Elberta, Alabama, and she wants to tell how she acquired the house and how the history of her white family has been intimately entangled with the history of Elberta. She and her way of life are now being threatened by the destruction of the Hernando de Soto Dam, which has long served its purpose and is now threatening to give way. In lengthy and extended flashbacks to 1929, we learn about Hugh Treeborne, Janie's grandfather, who helped build the dam. And in another series of flashbacks to 1958, we're informed about the intermediate generation—especially Janie's father, Ren, and her Aunt Tammy, who had aspirations to go to Hollywood and become a movie star dating back to when she saw her first movie at the Elberta Rampatorium. The book has no central narrative thread but instead invites us to become acquainted with an odd cast of characters, both in and out of the Treeborne family, across three generations. Chief among these is Lee Malone, an African-American who formerly owned the peach orchard and also became the lover of Janie's grandmother (and Hugh's wife), Maybelle, and Ricky Birdsong, injured in both mind and body and attuned to seeing visions of Jesus. Johnson's prose can soar to poetic heights, though his language is always rooted in the Southern vernacular. In fact, even the third-person narrative voice speaks with a Southern accent. ("You could still do things thataway back then"; "Pud Ward got hisself a new haircut.")A lyrical effusion deeply rooted in place and steeped in quirky characters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250169105
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 554,511
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Stories We Tell


The water was coming, but Janie Treeborne would not leave. She'd lived alone in this house perched on the edge of a roadside peach orchard in Elberta, Alabama, ever since Lee Malone sold it to her. Sold maybe not the right word for the price she paid, the price he would take. But it was hers and she would not leave. Rather the water take her too.

She'd been telling her visitor exactly how she came to own the house, which once was Lee's office and, before that, his boyhood home. A complicated matter. To tell how this house and the surrounding property became hers she needed to tell how it became Lee's, and to do that she needed to first tell about a man named Mr. Prince.

"See, back then folks thought Mr. Prince wasn't but a rumor and a last name," she continued. "But he was real. Lived in one of them mansions down on the river. Anyhow, Lee started working at The Peach Pit not long after the storm.

"Worked here for years. Then one day Mr. Prince carried him to lunch out at Woodrow's. The Hills would of been about the only place they could eat together. They ordered and sat down and Mr. Prince said he was selling the orchard, the old cannery, and a little cottage he owned in town for whatever was in Lee's billfold right that moment. Can you imagine? Mr. Prince died not too long after. Most of my growing up, folks still thought Lee wasn't nothing but the orchard manager. Would of got to a certain kind of person. Not him, not to Lee Malone."

Janie Treeborne'd come to own the peach orchard — and the other properties once belonging to Mr. Prince — the same way as Lee Malone. She sat at a greasy tabletop inside Woodrow's Pit Cook Bar-B-Q where, years before, Lee'd counted out of his billfold two-dollar-five-cent and a receipt for a bag of dog food, and she searched for what money she had in the depths of a purse she felt foolish toting around. Lee's heart was weak by then. He had considered turning the land over to Janie for a long long time.

She thought she would of handed everything down to her visitor, this young man sitting with a tape recorder on his lap and a long microphone gripped in his hand. So why'd she not? Janie couldn't remember. Did it matter? He was here, he was home. Had her same big forehead and freckled nose, her granddaddy Hugh's thick black hair and high-cut cheeks. A Treeborne, she thought, through and through, right down to the bone.

"Do you remember how much it was you paid?" he asked.

"Foot yes, I do," she said. "You reckon your grandmomma'd up and forget something like that? It was sixteen dollar and a pack of chewing gum."

"Did you ever regret not paying him more?"

"Regret, foot," she said. No amount would of been sufficient. This place was priceless. But how to explain that? "Lee's body might of blunted," she went on, "but his mind stayed sharp till the end. I always tell that if mine ain't then somebody please shove a gun right here and fire that sucker twice. There's one right yonder in the dresser drawer. I don't give a rip if it sounds morbid! Life's morbid! Love sure enough is.

"Lee Malone taught me everything about the peach-growing business. Everything. Even helped run the fruit stand through his last good summer on earth. Could still sing his head off too. Them trees yonder, we planted them together. Look out thataway you'll see where the house he died in once stood. Wasn't much to the place itself, but it was in Elberta and belonged to him, and there was a time that meant something. See? Other side the road there, just below the water tower Ricky Birdsong fell off of."

"Are there any pictures of Mr. Malone?" the young man asked.

Janie got up from her recliner chair and took one of the dozens of photo albums shelved in the living room and stacked in cardboard boxes pushed against the wall. She opened to a picture of the old Elberta water tower. Pointed, turned the page. Black-and-whites of folks standing by water, with dogs, by log houses and woodpiles, next to pickup trucks and wagons, at school, at church, in decorated cemeteries, along fencelines and unidentifiable roadsides and hedgerows. Somehow not one picture of Lee Malone.

She turned the page again and pointed at a girl with straight black hair touching bony shoulders. "There's me," she said, squinting as if to be sure. "Would of been the year before MawMaw May died — if I'm right."

"Do you still think about it?" the young man asked.

She closed the album. "I try to keep a routine for the sake of my mind, but there's only so much you can do now."

Janie Treeborne first received a notice from The Authority, say, three years ago. Plenty warning. The Hernando de Soto Dam had served its purpose for nearly eighty years. Her granddaddy, Hugh Treeborne, helped build it. Her daddy, Ren Treeborne, an engineer. Janie understood that if The Authority didn't implode the dam then its concrete would give to time and further neglect. A disaster would sure enough occur. The notice claimed there'd be payment for her property, relocation services, the works. Miss Treeborne, the letter called her, just needed to fill out the accompanying forms and mail them back. Janie knew how this story went. She took the notice and she deposited it right in the trash.

"The Fencepost sure does miss its big-talkers and bullshitters," she said. "I still hear their voices rattling around and around ... Air here's always been full of voices to my mind. Pedro agrees and he abets with a daily dose of radio. Lets them dogs that's always running around sleep inside the station if it's cold or raining. When one comes up lame. He feeds them scraps. But, hellfire, I do too when they roam up here. Jon D. used to say one was going to give me rabies. Foot. I told you Pedro started reading out our names on the air. A roll call, I reckon. Lucky that us fourteen remaining can dial him in another day yet. For that much we're blessed. Pedro and me share a sense of humor. Laugh to keep from tears."

The young man wanted to know how Janie spent her days. What it was like living in Elberta now and what all she did.

"Sometimes after breakfast I'll drive out at The Seven and prowl around them woods for a spell — same way me and Crusoe did. You'll have to go by there. A Treeborne ain't lived on them seven hundred acres since Aunt Tammy moved here with me. Used to though, the highway'd be backed up nearly all the way into town with folks come to see what all Granddaddy Hugh — be your great-great — what all he painted and assemblied and left out yonder in them woods. I still call it The Seven instead of whatever the hell they named it. Some of them folks who ran the place treated me like I ought to be put on display alongside all them things he made. Art, not things. That word's always got away from me. Time, they wanted me to give a series of talks on it. On him. This was back in The Seven's heyday — eighties-early-nineties — when some loud awful band put Granddaddy Hugh's art on their record cover. Sold a million copies, they tell. Told them I was too busy to give talks, which was no more than part-truth."

Janie eased back down in her recliner. She fixed the hem of her gown over her liver-spotted legs then patted the arm of the chair two times.

"I'll tell you," she went on, "it's fools who claim the ones you're expecting to go ain't so bad as those you don't. Treebornes never have been long-lived though. Aunt Tammy lasted longest of her siblings. Daddy was the oldest, Uncle Luther, then her. I can't speak for the long-livedness of Malones, but Lee dying was bad on me, buddy. And me in my twenties when it happened. Not bad like MawMaw May, but bad. I was just a fool girl when she died. Like to of ruined us all."

Janie turned her head to better see the young man, gazing as if she'd only then recalled he was in the room. Blinded on one side most of her life, the damaged eye looked like the inside of a grape. The young man was growing used to it, though when Janie leaned forward and clasped his hand he startled.

"There ain't a thing I'd trade," she said. "They tried and they tried and they tried to get me to. Some of our own kin, the government, Authority, different buddies over the years — Jon D. Crews among them. Says he's through begging me. Ain't heard from him in, I reckon, more than a month. Wouldn't trade calling this land home not even to get my eye back. Shit fire, you could say, Janie, we come up with a way to stop all that lakewater from spilling down into the valley, The Peach Pit can stay open for all eternity, but you got to move off from here. No sir. Me and this place — and I don't just mean what you can look out yonder and lay eyes upon — me and this place is just too tangled up. But I reckon you know that, don't you, coming up here with a tape recorder to get a old buzzard's stories."


Days Her Missing


Wooten Ragsdale had always been afraid she'd leave — not just him but this entire place. Tammy'd threatened to since the night she saw her first movie, at the Elberta Rampatorium. Fourteen, sitting on a grassy terrace next to a senior named Bobby Davis.

"Oh my lord," she said after the closing credits.

"What is it?" Bobby had dozed off when he realized she wasn't game to fool around.

"I got to go to Hollywood," Tammy said.

"Hell, right now?"

"No you fool. But one day, you watch, I'll be gone."

This realization occurred before Wooten knew Tammy, before the Ragsdales moved to the valley and he ruined his right hand at work. Tammy was, he thought after they met, more than pretty enough to be on the big screen. A face he could cup in his one good hand, bright-green eyes, thick black hair, and a good-size chest. If a Treeborne ever went for Miss Elberta Peach, though none ever did, Wooten liked to brag that it would of been Tammy.

After she graduated school she'd moved down to the Gulf of Mexico. Not quite Hollywood, but still. Wooten was two years behind Tammy at Elberta County High. He remembered hearing she'd moved away, but they ran with different crowds, and it didn't much register with him busy playing football for the Conquistadors and working at his daddy Leland's chickenhouses. About a year later Tammy moved back and started work for the county water department. Everybody figured her adventure to the Gulf Coast would of satisfied her Hollywood dreams. But Tammy kept making threats, even after she and Wooten began dating. It was cute, he thought — at first. But as she aged, and their relationship did too, the threats wore on him. The way Tammy acted was kin to being a grown woman who still pops and plays with her chewing gum. I'll leave this goddamn place tomorrow! she'd say. Wooten didn't know how to handle her outbursts. He was nervous by nature. Sometimes he wanted to just yell back, Well go on then!

One night a few years into their marriage, Tammy ranting and raving about going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star, Wooten dragged a hard blue-plastic suitcase out from the closet and began frantically stuffing it with clothes from their shared chest of drawers.

"What on earth do you think you're doing?" she asked.

"If leaving's what you want, then come on! Let's go." He was a man without much past anyhow. Why not up and leave?

She stood there watching him for a moment, wondering could they actually leave together, then said, "No. Stop it Woot. If I'm going it's got to be by myself."

Despite Tammy saying this, and the next four years of regular threats, Wooten Ragsdale did not decide till the second night of her missing that Tammy'd finally made good on her promise and gone.

He was sitting in a recliner chair eating fried pork skins from a brown paperbag while the new television bled blue light throughout the living room of their singlewide trailer. The embarrassing realization landed on Wooten from above, like bird droppings. His wife had gone to Hollywood, California, and left him here all by hisself. He finished the bag of pork skins then, knowing not what else to do, got in the new used pickup truck he'd bought from Big Connie Ward and drove out into the county.

The pickup was a beautiful thing with wood running boards and white capital lettering across the tailgate. Wooten drove and he drove, trying to believe he'd catch up to his wife if he just kept on. Pull over and she'd hop in. Drive back into town and eat a hamburger all-the-way, large fry, split a chocolate milk shake with whipped cream. The summer air all thick and buggy, they'd get in bed and talk about the house they were building on Tammy's folks' land till one fell asleep in the other's arms. Be like one of those damn movies she was always dragging him to see at the Grand Two ever since the Rampatorium shut down. Tammy had been furious when this happened. She believed there was no better way to see a movie than outdoors underneath the stars. She'd watch anything — westerns, love stories, murder mysteries, even kiddie cartoons if that's all that was playing. She said it felt like her innards were being squeezed by the moving pictures and the light. Something important happening. She told Wooten how, when she was a girl, she used to take frames that the projectionist threw out and bring them home, where she held them to lamplight and made up stories for the people and places she saw. Wooten and Tammy did not fool around during movies, way other couples did. This embarrassed him too. Folks sometimes called the Rampatorium a passion pit. He just knew everybody noticed his and Tammy's public display of celibacy. On occasion he tried to kiss her, tried to unbutton her britches and slip his bad hand underneath her bloomers. "Quit it Woot," she'd hiss, removing his hand like one might a pesky insect. "I don't want to miss what happens next."

When Wooten got back home later that night he tripped over a bowl of dog food on the porch. Dry pellets dropped down between the gapped boards. He cussed then hollered, "Martin, Martin, come on now!" The dog did not come. Odd, he thought, going inside and turning on the television. He tried to find wrestling. Martin was his little buddy. A chubby brown-and-white beagle mix. Wooten thought he might let the dog sleep inside since Tammy wasn't around to fuss about the shedding and the stinking. He grew tired of flipping channels. On-screen a comedian introduced a band that he didn't recognize. The picture dimmed. Wooten got up and smacked the side of the wood console with his bad hand. Still good for clubbing. The screen brightened. He readjusted one of the little ceramic figurines he gave Tammy on birthdays and holidays — this one Hernando de Soto astraddle a horse — then sat down and fell asleep.

Next morning he woke up and drove over at The Seven. He primed his chain saw while waiting for the Crews boy to show up. This alone seemed fishy, folks said when they found out Tammy was missing. But work had always soothed Wooten Ragsdale — even after his hand was mangled by a band saw when he was halving warm chicken carcasses for his daddy. Wooten couldn't say the same for Lyle Crews though. The boy was plumb lazy. All summer Wooten had been waiting for Lyle to quit. Looked like, he thought, tearing open the packaging of a snack cake with his teeth, today was going to be the day.

He checked the foundation that'd been poured the other week. With good weather the concrete would cure and he could start building soon. He grew tired of waiting and began work without Lyle Crews, downing several hardwoods, chaining them to the dozer then dragging them into the pasture alongside the others. He logged through lunch, not noticing Sister and Crusoe missing from atop Tammy's daddy's old artist studio, where his niece and the dirt boy doll she toted had been keeping watch on him every single damn day since he'd started.

Come evening Wooten drove over at Freedom Hills and bought a sack of tamales from Dyar's. The tamales, made of corn and filled with juicy pulled pork and diced red chili peppers and onions, were wrapped in steamed husks that scalded his fingertips as he peeled them. He finished the entire sack before he got home. The dog food remained where he'd spilled it the night before, minus what raccoons had eaten. He hollered, "Here now dog!" Didn't figure Tammy'd take Martin with her. What if something was wrong? Dogs are apt to wander though, he told hisself as he carried a dozen cold beers onto the porch — and Tammy could be spiteful, just like her momma. He sat on the metal glider and drank. The beers tasted all the crisper in the early August heat that would not break, even after the mean orange sun fell beyond the black hills. He drank all twelve beers then started feeling real good and sorry for hisself. Tammy never had qualms letting Wooten know she despised this in him. He despised the inclination too, though he couldn't help it any more than a stone could its stillness.


Excerpted from "Treeborne"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Caleb Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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