The Trees takes place in the Mississippi town where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. “If you want to know a place, you talk to its history,” writes Percival Everett. But the events in the book unfold during contemporary times, and the twist here is white people are being brutally murdered instead. Most hauntingly, alongside the white bodies is always discovered a black body wrapped in barbed wire; just how Till was found.
But this body has no blood on it, just an outstretched hand holding the testicles of the white person who has been killed. The cover of the edition I read is ingenious because it depicts this horrific act in the most mischievously playful manner.
Rarely, if ever, will you come across another book that tackles complex and serious issues like racial violence, police brutality, and historical injustice that’s as poignant and hilarious at the same time.
In Everett’s short story “The Appropriation of Cultures” written in 1996, the black characters appropriate the Confederate Flag – a common white supremacist symbol – as a sign of black power and start flying it. Everett himself said later that he doesn’t want people to actually stop flying the flag.
When radio show host David Naimon asked him after the release of The Trees whether he still holds the same view, Everett had replied: “When I come to a minefield, I really appreciate a big sign on the edge of it that says – ‘MINES’!”
It’s this style of burlesque comedy that also ignites the words on the page in The Trees and makes it much more than a police procedural or an enraged commentary on injustice. It isn’t surprising why the narrative in the book has been compared with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s style of storytelling so often by critics ever since it came out.
A 105-year-old black woman who plays a significant role in this book compiles a dossier of every lynching in the United States. One chapter in the novel is just names of those people. It’s a haunting little detail which will refuse to leave your consciousness once you’ve finished reading it.
“You know, when one group really doesn’t like another group. Sometimes they dislike them to death,” a character says in the book. The hurt is palpable here, the wounds as ancient as trees on our planet.