Mon October 6, 2003
In a Temple of Trees
Do not think you can give this novel to your old aunt for Christmas, but it may be, if you are made of sturdy stuff, you can read it yourself.
By Don Noble
If novels came with the same kind of codes as films, I would have to tell audiences that In a Temple of Trees is an R-rated or even an X-rated novel. It is in fact steeped in sex and violence and violent sexuality and sexual violence. Do not think you can give this novel to your old aunt for Christmas, but it may be, if you are made of sturdy stuff, you can read it yourself. It is a powerful, painful, disturbing and credible work of fiction.
Most of the action takes place at an exclusive hunting lodge named DoeRun Lodge, located west of Tuscaloosa but on the Alabama side of the state line. Here, in this pristine, beautiful woodland, where one might feel he has ?crawled up inside the heart of God,? the most powerful white men in fictional Three Breezes, Alabama, get together for hunting weekends, birds or deer usually.
They also use the lodge as a kind of illicit men?s club, bringing prostitutes to the lodge for entertainment. Wives are not welcome at DoeRun and the lodge has no phone, so wives cannot even interrupt the festivities with a call.
On one evening in 1958 the lodge has been reserved for the gang of five: Big John McCormick, who owns thousands of acres of timber; Lee Davis, the president of Farmer?s Bank, Roscoe Bartley, Big John?s attorney, the sheriff, Jackson ?Huck? Huckaby, and Cashman Cloy, his overseer, a second in command. When there are only the five men present, and only one woman, Cecil Price, the black boy who helps out around the lodge, knows the men will play THE GAME.
Cecil peeps through a window and watches as Charity Collins entertains the men, as things get out of hand, and as, finally, she is killed and her body disposed of. Cecil is warned not to speak a word, or it will all be blamed on him, and since Sheriff Huckaby, along with everyone else, is in Big John?s pocket, they will make it stick.
Cecil thus, at the age of 12, will be literally haunted by the ghost of Charity, weighted and blighted with a secret and a fear that will not leave him for decades. And Cecil, one of the most unusual characters I have run upon in recent Southern literature, already has a lot to deal with.
Cecil?s mother abandons him as a three-year-old, and Sheriff Huckaby delivers the boy to the childless Austin and Sophie Price. The Prices raise him, raise him part Jewish, in fact, with some Hebrew spoken and a private bar mitvah, since Sophie is the only Jew in Three Breezes. Mysteriously, the mortgage on Austin?s radio station is paid off.. Who did it? Who is Cecil?s biological father? Readers of Faulkner will soon guess.
After Austin?s death, Cecil inherits the station and becomes a local celebrity?sometimes as a radio preacher, sometimes as an R & B disk jockey. He also accumulates some influence over the black vote, and the crisis in this novel becomes a new 1990 referendum on raising property taxes. The powerful white men will intimidate, rape, torture, anything, to maintain control and avoid taxes.
Suzanne Hudson is a writer with an inventive, jolly, sense of humor, honest?but she?s using it sparingly here. Reading this novel is hard, painful, because the men in the novel, having nearly absolute power, are nearly absolutely corrupt, maybe ?evil,? and their corruption spreads to their homes, their wives and daughters, the courthouse, everywhere.
As with Sophie?s Choice, the William Styron novel about the Holocaust, reading this novel is not easy, but it is necessary and it is art. The beatings, brandings, racism, sexism, violence, exploitation, and arrogance of the men in In a Temple of Trees are not fun to see, but Hudson refuses to let us bury our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, about issues that we only WISH were in the distant past.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.