"This whole summer has been nothing but secrets, and I'm afraid my whole life will be like this. It's like life is a spiderweb of secrets, holding everything together by these tiny threads that hide the truth. And I keep stumbling into webs I can't get out of."
Set in the summer of 1963 during the Vietnam War and while the Cold war between the Soviet Union and the West was ongoing, The Secrets of Tree Taylor explores life in small town America and a girl struggling to come to terms with the secrets she learns about people in her town.
Thirteen year old Tree Taylor lives in Hamilton, Missouri with her parents and her older sister Eileen. Her best friends are seventeen year old Jack Adams and her classmate, Sarah. Tree, (her name is variation on Teresa concocted by Jack) loves the Beatles and especially loves to dance. She has a crush on her classmate Ray Miller. Tree has two goals for the summer of '63. She desperately wants the only freshman spot on the Hamilton High newspaper, Blue and Gold. But she needs to write something in order to nab that spot, since Wanda Hopkins expects to get it as her Aunt Edna aka Mrs. Woolsey runs the paper. And the shooting of Mr. Kinney might just be that opportunity. The second goal Tree has set for herself is to have her first kiss.
One morning, Tree who is sitting out on her front porch hears the gunshot and watches as her father, the town doctor, races down the street to the Kinney home. Tree ignores her father's warning to stay put and walks to the edge of their property. There she sees Mrs. Kinney emerge from the house holding a rifle and that's when Tree runs to the cottonwood on the Kinney property. There she sees her father talk to Mrs. Kinney, go in and check on Mr. Kinney and then come out again, taking the rifle from her. Tree notices the Mrs. Kinney's "cheeks and forehead were the color of lemon-lime Squirt, with patches of yellow and splotches of blue and purple. Her nose bent to the side, hinting at the letter L." This description suggests that Mrs. Kinney is being physically abused by her husband.
When Sheriff Robinson shows up, Doc Taylor tells him that Alfred Kinney's been shot and that he has had a neighbour call the ambulance to take Kinney to the hospital for a few nights. After the Sheriff talks to Alfred Kinney he asks Tree's father what they should do. Doc Taylor merely states that "Accidents happen." despite Alfred Kinney's "peculiar notions about the shooting." Tree decides that "Whatever did happen inside the Kinney's house, it was going to be my ticket to the Blue and Gold staff. This would be my first investigative report, and I'd prove to Mrs. Woolsey that she should me. Not Wanda."
What happened at the Kinney's home becomes Tree's secret although she doesn't at first realize that other people don't know what happened. They only know that Alfred Kinney shot himself by accident because that is what has they have been told. However Mrs. Kinney's numerous accidents over the years and arguments overheard by the neighbours lead some to suspect that this is not what really happened. Tree decides that she's "going to tell it like it is." However when she approaches her father to ask him about what happened that morning he tells her to let it go. He tells her to write about someone like Gary Lynch who has leukemia and cannot leave his home or the soldiers dying in Vietnam.
As Tree struggles to write her article she realizes she needs more information than she has about Mrs. Kinney, so she begins visiting her. She discovers that Lois Kinney who loved to read, wanted to be a librarian. But it's obvious from the lack of books in her home that Alfred Kinney would not allow her to have books. So Mrs. Kinney hid a set of encyclopedias and as a result knows facts about many strange and random topics. With each visit by Tree Mrs. Kinney shares these facts but Tree doesn't have the courage to ask her about what happened that morning.
One day Jack sends out a fake story via his mother Donna who is the town gossip. He tells his mother who calls him many times per day, that he shot and killed a man trying to rob the IGA. This news reaches Tree who races there to only to find out that nothing happened. Tree is furious realizing the truth of what happened that he could have been killed and that was something she did not want to ever face. This event gets Tree to thinking about the Mrs. Kinney situation and her story.
Jakes fake story had even made me confused about journalism. What if I heard a story about somebody, and then I wrote about it, thinking it was the truth. Only it wasn`t. People would believe what I wrote. They would believe me.Gradually Tree begins to feel that she doesn't want to report anything that might hurt Lois Kinney.
Meanwhile, although Tree finds Ray attractive and is jealous that he is spending time with Wanda, she has many great moments with her best friend Jack. Jack and Tree's parents get together on Sundays to make music while they play games or dance. Their love of music and especially dance are what draw Jack and Tree together. However, Jack, who takes Tree on driving lessons and essentially looks out for her, will be leaving in the fall to attend Northwest Missouri State.
Tree recognizes the same traits that Mrs. Kinney has in her classmate, Penny Atkinson. Penny never says more than two words and she behaves strangely around her stepbrother, Chuck.At her job as a basket girl at the Hamilton swimming pool, Tree begins to seek out Penny and try to talk with her.
Soon Tree begins to realize that almost everyone has secrets; her best friend Sarah's family's yard sale, Eileen's hair dye, Wanda, Ray, and even, eventually her best friend Jack. But when Tree uncovers Penny's secret she has to decide whether it's a secret to be kept or to tell someone? And how does one decide which secrets to keep and which to tell?
Those who have read To Kill A Mockingbird will immediately sense the similarity of Mackall's novel to this well know American classic. Mackall's narrator, thirteen year old Tree is reminiscent of precocious five year old Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tree's father, Doc Taylor is similar to Scout's lawyer father, Atticus. Like Atticus, Doc Taylor is concerned about truth, justice and mercy. He doesn't like gossip and prefers to take people as they are. Like Scout, Tree is a bit of a tomboy, forgoing skirts and makeup and she has a close relationship with her father who attempts to instill in her his regard for the truth tempered with mercy. However, unlike To Kill A Mockingbird, The Secrets of Tree Taylor doesn't tackle heavy themes and therefore is not a dark novel.
There are plenty of themes in the novel but of course the most evident one involves secrets and the responsibility one has in knowing a person's secret. In the end Tree learns that sometimes divulging a secret will do more harm than keeping it and other times, as with Penny's secret keeping it will do the most harm. Doc Taylor tells her that discerning which to tell and which to keep is a difficult thing.
"But how do you know? How can I tell which secrets to leave alone and which secrets not to? I didn't know for sure he was hurting her."The character development is one of the key strengths of this novel. Each character is quite different and the reader feels like they are experiencing a real town populated by real people. I was invested in the characters enough that I wanted to know how life worked out for Jack, Tree, Sarah and Mrs. Kinney.
Dad looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time.
"That's the problem, Tree. We don't always know. Only God sees everything. There aren't any secrets with him. The rest of us have to do the best we can."
While this novel was not historical fiction for me, it will be so for young teens who read it. Mackall has done a brilliant job of portraying the culture of early 1960's America, with plenty of references to the early rock and roll music of the era, hula hoops, sock hops, drive-in theaters, the controversy and division the Vietnam War created in America, and the ever present threat of the Cold War. The reason the novel succeeds is that the author drew from her own personal experiences growing up in a small town. Her father was a small town doctor similar to Doc Taylor in the novel, who took fruit and vegetables as payment for his services. When writers write about what they intimately know, they write brilliantly.
At the end of the novel, Tree tells what happens during the rest of 1963 and into early 1964. Readers will find the ending bittersweet, although the author tries to remain hopeful. But it's definitely a twist no one expects.
Overall, The Secrets of Tree Taylor is an outstanding novel - one of the best I've read this year. Dandi Daley Mackall has written many novels and one of her books, My Boyfriend's Dogs has been made in a movie for television, to be aired this fall. Her novel, The Silence of Murder won the Edgar Award.
The Secrets of Tree Taylor by Dandi Daley Mackall
New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2014