Review: The Linden Tree by Ellie Mathews

h1 December 13th, 2007 by jules

I get review copies from Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit literary press, though you woudn’t know it, since I’m so hopelessly behind on many of my reviews (that aren’t picture books). If you’re not familiar with this publisher, you should be. You can read about their history and mission here. Actually, I’ll give you their mission right here, straight from their web site. And why am I doing this? ‘Cause I feel like I have to, since they send me review copies? Nah. I can’t be bought that easily. Heh. It’s ’cause they have some really great books and one slammin’ mission:

“Milkweed Editions publishes with the intention of making a humane impact on society, in the belief that literature is a transformative art uniquely able to convey the essential experiences of the human heart and spirit. To that end, Milkweed publishes distinctive voices of literary merit in handsomely designed, visually dynamic books, exploring the ethical, cultural, and esthetic issues that free societies need continually to address.”

In this post from June, Eisha featured an anthology of poetry by Éireann Lorsung, published by Milkweed this year (I also have a review copy, and it’s amazing stuff. We were going to attempt a co-review, but it’s the kind of anthology we feel like we need to read and re-read and re-read again. It’s not the most accessible poetry, but that certainly doesn’t make it inferior. The poems are elegant, sometimes provocative, sometimes playful, always well-crafted. But they also bring me something new upon each read, not to mention that some elude me, honestly — but in a good, let-me-just-ponder-them-a-bit-more way. Thus, the absence of our co-review). Milkweed has many interesting non-fiction titles (for adults), in particular, some of which I hope to review soon. Anyway, even though they release only twelve to twenty new books each year, this includes children’s titles (“we are one of two nonprofit presses that publish children’s literature”). Here is a review of one, which I finished a while ago and am just getting around to, a novel aimed at intermediate-aged readers: The Linden Tree, written by Ellie Mathews and published by Milkweed this year.

The plot in this one is far from complicated: Eleven-year-old Katherine Hanson, called Katy Sue, lives on a small Iowa farm with her family — her father and older siblings, Benjamin and Ingrid. It’s the end of March 1948, and meningitis has suddenly taken her mother to the grave under the linden tree on their land. After a rousing visit from a family friend, Jake, in the midst of the family’s deep grief, Katy Sue’s Aunt Katherine comes to visit and eventually moves in. The novel primarily deals with Katy Sue’s coming-of-age, as she struggles to come to terms with her mother’s loss, adjust to the new reality of family life without her, and come to accept Aunt Katherine as a permanent presence in their home, performing many of the same tasks in the home which her own mother did. I don’t want to give away the book’s major plot turn, so I’ll stop there.

What Mathews has done well in this novel is created a very real sense of place on this small farm in small-town 1948 Iowa. And she’s created a distinct voice in Katy Sue, as we tumble through the year following her mother’s death with her, feeling her grief, witnessing her world and the suddenly disjointed puzzle pieces of it. I do think the novel occasionally suffered from a lack of momentum. About 3/4 of the way through it, I almost put it down, feeling as if the conflict, so necessary to keep one turning the pages, was not palpable enough for me to continue. I can’t say the novel’s big plot turn, involving Katy Sue’s father and her Aunt Katherine, was unexpected. But the series of events leading up to it were lacking in narrative tension, and so I was almost surprised after all when it happened. Even quiet, gentle stories such as this one need that atmosphere of menace, for lack of a better word, to keep one hooked. I was waiting for that something to come, what with the mention of a storm on page one and chapter one ending with the dramatic “I had no idea what might happen to us next” {after her mother’s death}. But that’s just it — it took entirely too long for that “what” to come to pass (or, as School Library Journal put it, the major plot turn towards the novel’s close is “somewhat confusing in its suddenness”).

But I didn’t put it down, and I didn’t dislike the read. And here’s why: Mathews is capable of some really beautiful, quite poetic moments of prose and can really spin some evocative metaphors. I won’t forget Katy Sue’s description of her father’s face of grief: “{H}e put an arm around Ben’s shoulders and began to walk him toward the barn. ‘You’re all I’ve got anymore.’ His face looked like old rags just then. ‘Sometimes I just get plain scared.'” His face looked like old rags just then. Okay, folks, if I could come up with just one lovely such description like that in my life, I’d consider myself done creatively. Just done. Okay, I rock. I’m hangin’ it up now, since I just threw that vivid image out into the world. But oh well. A novelist and poet I am not. I’ll leave it to Mathews instead. And she’s got more:

It was strange. I could be happy and dancing one minute and grieving the next. I couldn’t tell when my sadness would hit. Once, during one of those songs on the radio, I just started crying. It never made any sense to me that I could be doing something I really liked, such as wading in the creek or sugaring strips of Aunt Katherine’s excess pie crust to twist and bake alongside the pies, then next thing I knew I’d feel as sad as if Mama had just died yesterday. The sorrow would hit and spread inside me like warm water soaking into cloth.

Nice. I know it might seem silly to focus on such turns of phrase, such little moments of the novel, but it’s exactly those kinds of moments in writing that add up to create a new awareness in the reader and make me stop and say wow and I think I’ll keep going.

And, no matter the abrupt plot turn in the end, I was wrapped up in Katy Sue’s process of grief, how she came out on the other end of it with all the grace she could muster. In the novel’s opening, she is determined not to let anyone see her cry, refuses to “crumple. I knew if I did I would never be able to put the pieces of myself back together again.” And how she gets past that and comes to some form of acceptance made for an engaging read.

You can read more review excerpts here. As Kirkus Reviews noted, this is a good recommendation for fans of Sarah, Plain and Tall.

One comment to “Review: The Linden Tree by Ellie Mathews”

  1. I really like Milkweed Editions, and this novel sounds like it has its moments of greatness.

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.