reviewed by Julia Smillie
A Tree Born Crooked
Pandamoon Press, 2014
Steph Post’s novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is the story of gruff, emotionally removed James Hart, who returns to his home town of Crystal Springs, Florida, after receiving a postcard informing him of the death of his father. Not a prodigal son returning, he is the one who escaped, and his return is shot through with reluctance and an earned sense of wariness. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for him to get dragged into a dangerous situation. A robbery goes very wrong, a large sum of money goes missing and what begins as a story about family slowly twists into a full-out crime caper with, guns blazing, connected bad guys pursuing those James loves.
Although much of what happens in A Tree Born Crooked is large in scale and stakes, the action is grounded by Post’s exceptional eye for the tiny details – the specifics and small gestures that reveal more about her characters than full paragraphs of dialogue could ever do.
Fans of Elmore Leonard’s Florida novels and their ilk will find themselves in familiar territory, right down to the Dixie Mafia element and a generous helping of local dialect. It’s a world filled with seedy local bars, odd characters with dark pasts, cheap motels and diners with breakfast specials. (Not to mention a tough but hard-to-crack woman James finds himself drawn to.) But Post sets herself apart with her slow-burning pace, meting out backstory in tremendous detail. She allows her characters the time and space to linger in the moments, to take stock of their surroundings, to mine the deep corners of their souls.
Even so, there is still somehow a distance here, Post holding us at an arm’s length from the action, preventing us from getting too close to the characters. Which is probably exactly the way James Hart would want it.
Julia Smillie is a national award-winning freelance writer and editor living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently working on her first novel.