Using language rich as mulch, debut author Johnson tells the superb saga of three generations of Treebornes, who live near the town of Elberta in the southern reaches of Alabama. Janie Treeborne narrates much of the story, tripping through time beginning with the days of her grandaddy Hugh, forced by circumstance to join the Authority, behemoth builder of a modern dam. So as not to forget how things once were, Hugh becomes a maker of a strange art he calls “assemblies,” figures made of mud, spiders’ webs, and gears. His wife is Janie’s beloved MawMaw, the postmaster Maybelle; she is in love with Lee Malone, the “man with the blue arms” who sings like an angel and tends orchards as old as the conquistador Hernando DeSoto. When Janie’s aunt and uncle threaten to sell off and clear the ancient forest once home to her beloved grandparents, Janie and her friends kidnap her aunt to try to stop them, and she goes on the lam in the company of a magical doll made of dirt. Johnson’s pervasive use of the colloquial, even when narrating, never gets irritating. Metaphors abound, and it isn’t a coincidence the Treebornes’ town shares a person’s name; the whole place is as alive as if it walked on two feet. Sentence by loamy sentence, this gifted author digs up corpses and upends trees to create a place laden with magic and memory. (June)
Correction: this review originally misidentified the setting.