The title “The Trees” most immediately references two ideas in this book. First, the family trees of white Southerners who suddenly find their crimes and their families’ crimes coming back to haunt them and even kill them. The second of course is as a symbol of lynching. In the novel we begin with a white family discussing the murder of one of their kin who is found dead and bound in barbed wire, his testicles cut off, and next to the body of a Black man who has the testicles clenched in his hand. The scene should read as a kind of inverse of historical accounts and images of lynchings, as well as in the literary depictions of lynchings in Faulkner and James Baldwin. The family also starts wondering if this is connected to the “dead Black boy” the matriarch of the family had some hand in killing via calling the police. That’s all we’re told for now.
In the next scene, we learn from the police that the body of the Black man has disappeared. Later, a second murder involves the exact same circumstances.
Two Black MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigation) show up to investigate the two murders and the disappearance of the corpse, twice. As they investigate they start to wonder about the lingering question that haunts the novel. Is the dead Black man the person it really seems he might be?
In addition to the plot, the most important thing to take note of here is the tone of the novel. There’s a kind of sardonic irony that captures the narration throughout and the characters of the investigators. In addition, it’s just nice to read something that refuses to pull any punches about the world we’re living in. There’s some changes in the laws, sure (and also sometimes not), but the de facto situation of the world of 2022 isn’t all that different than it used to be. There are still plenty of people alive who attended lynchings decades ago, and plenty of people alive who wish they could.