Author: Douglas Thayer
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Adult Fiction
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 384
Binding: Trade Paperback
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author, in trade for a free copy of my book, No Going Back.
Harris Thatcher has pretty much everything a 15-year-old boy could want, in his opinion at least: a perfect dad, a good family, and Luke, his best friend. He’s a good Mormon kid living in Provo, Utah, where his dad is a high school science teacher. It’s summer, with swimming and fishing to look forward to and high school starting in the fall. His only complaint is that World War II is winding down, so it’ll be over before he can be part of it.
And then things start going wrong. His dad’s diabetes, which he hasn’t been taking care of very well, flares up suddenly. His death at the beginning of chapter 2 brings harder times, as the same unambitious attitude that made Harris’s father spend time with his kids instead of trying to get ahead leaves them financially strapped. They take in a boarder, with Harris moving into a room with his younger brothers. Harris has to get a job at a local cafe, where he washes dishes and learns how to make pies. A little over a year later, his girlfriend dies of pneumonia. After graduating from high school, Harris serves a mission in Germany — and then he and Luke are both immediately drafted to serve in Korea, where Luke is killed and Harris becomes, in his own eyes at least, a hardened killer.
Coming home to Provo is hard for him, as he worries that he doesn’t fit there anymore. And then a fire while he’s at work kills his mother and two younger brothers, leaving him pretty much alone in the world despite the concern of Luke’s parents and the bishop and even the owner of the cafe where he works.
So what is it that makes life worth living and belief worth hanging onto when you feel like you’ve lost everything that was important to you?
That’s a one of the Big Tough Questions. For someone like Luke, more religious than Harris, simple faith might be enough — though in fairness to Harris, it has to be pointed out that Luke doesn’t get put through the same things Harris went through. Luke’s father doesn’t die. Luke goes to Korea, but serves as a medic, his job not killing but saving lives. He dies heroically, trying to save others, while Harris instead must find a way to survive.
After the death of his family, Harris simply drifts, apparently unable to move out of the place he’s in. He stops going to Church. He moves into a one-bedroom apartment. He goes nowhere except work and visits no one.
And then his appendix bursts and he’s nursed back to health by Jennifer, an active Mormon girl who had been two years ahead of him in high school. They start dating. She asks what he wants out of life:
“Harris, look at me. This is serious. Do you want your kids to go to Primary and Sunday School? Do you want your boys to have the priesthood and pass the sacrament and bless it and go on missions and be Eagle Scouts and not drink or smoke or sleep around? Do you want your girls to be Mia Maids and Laurels? Do you want them to get married in the temple for time and eternity? Do you want to live in a ward and go to sacrament meeting and hear boring talks nearly every Sunday? Do you want your kids to grow up believing all the wonderful things you and Luke believed about God and Jesus and the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and eternal families and life after death and love that lasts forever?” (p. 365)
They talk. He tells her about the things that happened in Korea, the enemy soldiers he helped to kill. She tells him that doesn’t make him unworthy and urges him to move on and make things right in his life. Harris thinks a little, talks with the non-Mormon owner of the cafe — about as close to a mother figure as he has left at this point — and makes his decision. A few weeks later, he and Jennifer are married in the temple.
And then the following April, Luke’s body is found. Harris speaks at the funeral. Afterwards at the cemetery, Luke’s mother asks him:
“Oh, Harris, we’ll see him again on resurrection morning! Our boy will be so beautiful, so beautiful. We’ll all be here together once more, won’t we, Harris? And your family will all be here too, your dad and your mom, and Todd and Garth, and your grandmother, everybody, won’t they?” . . .
“Yes, yes,” he said, which was what he had to say, wanted to say, had enough faith for. Otherwise there was nothing, and there could not be that. And the suffering and pain had to be paid for too, somehow, the incredible loss, the waste, the incalculable stupidity, the hate, the greed. And there had to be mercy, justice, grace, redemption, but mostly redemption because, oh, sweet Jesus Christ, how the world needed to be redeemed! (pp. 371-372)
It’s a well-earned, quiet, but powerful and faith affirming resolution to a challenging and well-written story.
I found Thayer’s style in this book took some getting used to. The story is told largely in short, third-person declarative sentences that reflect the wandering, free-associative pattern of Harris’s thoughts without a lot of the connecting verbal tissue that mediates the experiences of reading in the most common contemporary narrative styles. Paragraphs often feature apparently random shifts in topic, as in the example below:
Luke was his best friend. Harris had a warm, good feeling about Luke, which was something like he felt for his dad, so he knew how much he liked Luke, but he never told Luke because it would have been too embarrassing. Luke was the best player on the sophomore basketball team. (p. 45)
Or the following, though the connecting thread’s a bit more obvious here:
The house was frame; all the other houses in the neighborhood were brick. Harris knew that his mom wanted a brick house because it was safer, looked nicer, and cost less for fire insurance. Harris’s mom was more religious than his dad. She bore her testimony in fast and testimony meeting and said she knew the Church was true. His dad never bore his testimony. He’d lived in the Sixth Ward all his life, but he didn’t seem to worry too much about going to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom after he died. Harris wondered why his dad wasn’t more religious, but he didn’t ask. It was okay. He didn’t think his dad paid tithing. (p. 12)
Or more horrifyingly, the following paragraph after Harris has helped dig out two fellow soldiers in Korea who were killed by shelling:
Standing back in the trench in the rain, Harris looked down at his hands. The dirt was so worked under his fingernails and into his skin that his hands had turned completely brown. The rain did not cleanse his hands. He didn’t think he would ever get his hands clean again. He knew he still had blood under his nails. Gutting a deer, you got blood under your nails. He turned his hands palms up. (p. 315)
The effect reminds me of an impressionist painting, composed of thickly laid brush strokes that viewed close up form no evident pattern but seen from a greater distance coalesce startlingly into the intended image. Once I got used to it, the style was both intimate and effective.
Despite the age of the protagonist and the coming-of-age theme, this isn’t a book (as I’ve commented before) that I think anyone would label as a young adult novel, largely because of the writing style. Much of the story rests in the growth and change in Harris’s perspective and understanding over time. It takes an active and alert reader to pick out those details.
Stories of missionary service represent one of the most distinctive categories of Mormon literature. The Tree House incorporates one of the best examples I’ve seen, partly because it doesn’t try too hard to amuse or inspire or typify or appal, and because the focus of the narrative remains steady on describing Harris’s particular experiences. That very specificity works better to depict the spirit of a mission (at least in my view) than a more self-consciously “universal” missionary story could do. Even though Harris’s missionary service took place more than three decades before mine, in a post-World War II Germany that was very different from Italy in the 1980s, I still found much that resonated with my own experience. I’m looking forward to sitting my son down after he gets back from his mission (in western Washington state) to see if those parts of the story resonate for him as well.
I can’t speak to the veracity of the war scenes, though like the rest of the novel they’re well-written, rounded out with the specificity of carefully drawn details. With quiet insistence, Thayer brings home the fundamental contradiction between war and the gospel of Christ, as in the following paragraph:
The body was so easily smashed and destroyed. After a day lying in the hot Korean sun it bloated and stank. It wasn’t beautiful, sacred. . . . War was an organized way for men to kill and wound each other. That’s what Harris had spent the last three weeks doing. In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites killed without mercy. Did Helaman’s stripling warriors kill without mercy and without regret? It didn’t say. (pp. 316-317)
Harris wonders if he had ever had the faith he thought he had while he was on his mission. Luke wouldn’t have reacted the same way Harris did, or so he thinks. “Others would have to pray for him; he was now incapable of doing that for himself” (p. 316).
So what’s the value of a book like The Tree House?
A while back, I remember reading a comment about The Tree House from a Mormon reader who hadn’t liked it because it was so bleak. The hope of the gospel, she felt, was not there as an active force in the main character’s life.
I can understand that perspective, though it’s not one I share. Sometimes, I think, we are each other’s angels. Paul may have promised the Corinthians that we won’t be tempted more than we are able, but sometimes the way of escape is other people. To me, that’s a profoundly moving theme, though hardly an exclusively Mormon one.
One of The Tree House’s great virtues is its faithful, sympathetic, but ultimately tough depiction of a particular kind of experience. I believe this book has great potential to help non-Mormon readers feel and understand part of what it means to be Mormon, in a way that makes them see and feel the commonality with their own experience. As a Mormon, reading it made me feel that I know myself better as well.
There’s a point in Thayer’s novel when Harris, in Provo waiting to ship off to Korea following basic training, thinks back on all the stories Jack, his trainer in piemaking at the Starlite Cafe, had told him in years past about his own experiences in World War I:
Jack stood silhouetted in the lit doorway as Harris drove off. They both waved. Harris understood how all of Jack’s stories had helped prepare him for being in the army. Basic would have been a lot harder if he hadn’t had Jack’s stories. Harris was grateful. A boy needed a man’s stories to help prepare him for his own life. (p. 267)
I’ve never been to war. I hope I never have to, or (worse yet) watch my children do so. And yet I feel as if, reading Thayer’s book, I’ve managed somehow to take a portion of his character’s experience into my own life. I’m a better man as a result.
It’s wonderful that Chris Bigelow and Zarahemla Books published The Tree House. In a way, though, it’s also a shame, because Zarahemla isn’t positioned to publicize and distribute this book the way it deserves.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years here, on AML-List, and elsewhere about the importance and difficulty of writing literature that is intensely Mormon, that speaks in an authentic Mormon voice while at the same time communicating that experience in a way that will resonate with nonbelievers and those without firsthand experience of Mormon culture. This book does that. I wouldn’t hesitate to push this book on anyone with a taste for fiction in the realist tradition. It stands up to the best of Willa Cather, which is the highest compliment I can imagine for a work of this kind. (I’ve read some reviewers who compare it to Stephen Crane, but since I don’t much care for Crane, that’s not a comparison I really want to make.)
This is a book I think could reach both Mormon readers and a general non-Mormon readership — including the kind of readers who hang out in university literature departments and creative writing programs. Unfortunately, I doubt they’ll ever know about it. Who reviews literary novels these days? It might be worth trying to get them to take a look at The Tree House, though I personally don’t know how to go about doing that.
I don’t believe in the Great Mormon Novel, partly because I think stories can be great for different audiences and purposes, and partly because I believe there is no singular Mormon experience that can be captured in one novel. But if I were making a short list of candidates for the position, The Tree House would be on it.