Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby

Three young children, two girls and a boy, get in a canoe unsupervised one evening on Canadaigua Lake, one of the finger lakes in upstate New York. The weather worsens, the wind kicks up waves, the paddle is lost, and only two of the children return. The youngest, the boy, is not to seen again for a year, when his body finally surfaces.

Thus begins The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, set around Canadaigua Lake and some of its long-time residents. There is Grant Shongo, returning to his family's cabin for the first time in years in order to recover from his wife's leaving him after three miscarriages. Also returning is Echo O'connell, who was brought up on the lake by her distant cousin Joseph O'Connell, owner of the local general store, after her parents were killed in a car crash. They return to confront the wreckage left by the canoe accident long ago—Grant's cabin haunted by the boy's ghost; the boy's mother and sisters, all struggling and haunted in their own ways—and each other. They had been inseparable as teenagers but had not spoken in years. Through it all runs the legacy and lore of the Seneca Indians, who once lived around the lake and whose spirit wields its influence still.

The Language of Trees has some wonderful moments and some suspenseful ones as well. Overall, it is a lovely story of love, loss, and redemption. Most of the characters are very human and lovable; only one is truly evil and turns out to be the source of much of pain in the book. While I enjoyed it, I often found the beautiful language it is written in getting in the way of the story; it is so pretty at times, it is distracting. (Ilie Ruby is also a painter.) The lake is given too many colors, the natural world takes too many actions (trees draw the dew across the grass one moment and are breathless the next). Call me a philistine, but I believe literary images should be rock-hard, draw crisp pictures in the mind, and above all serve the story, rather than be impressionistic, drawing attention to themselves.

Once again I find myself wishing for an editor who would be a task master, one who can see the story as a sculptor envisions his creation in the block of granite and is willing to chip away at some beautiful stuff to bring out what's hidden. I found The Language of Trees to be just too fuzzy to get a rave review from me, and for that I am sorry, because it is truely a lovely story.

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