The Cicada Tree

Written by Robert Gwaltney
Review by Thomas j. Howley

In the summer of 1956 in Providence, Georgia, an ominous and widespread infestation of cicadas appears to be ushering in a preternatural series of portentous events. Eleven-year-old Analeise Newell lives simply in an extended family with her mother, often absent father, and family helpers, young Etta Mae and Etta’s grandmother, Miss Wessie. Analeise is a precocious pianist and white, while Etta Mae, who has an extraordinary singing voice, is Black. When the two combine their musical talents, the results are almost celestially exquisite.

The delightful and charming girls seem inseparable as they work and play under the watchful eye of Miss Wessie. This youthful harmony is disrupted when Analeise makes the unexpected and ill-boded acquaintance of the hauntingly beautiful and wealthy Mayfield family. Mrs. Mayfield’s touch stunningly impacts Analeise and seems to release unearthly abilities in her. From that moment, matters spin wildly in weird and increasingly malevolent ways toward a cataclysmic culmination. Through it all, the cicadas’ presence plays in the background like a thunderous crescendo.

Billed as Southern Gothic fiction, this outstanding novel struck me as a superbly crafted psychological thriller, a combination of Edgar Allan Poe and the best of the early works of Stephen King. It features great Southern dialogue throughout, especially when the girls and Miss Wessie are carrying on together. Miss Wessie is an exceptionally likeable character whose early warnings about the Mayfields are unfortunately unheeded. With prose that includes phrases concerning “phantasmagoria” and “desiccated appendages,” the book gradually reveals secret after secret until finally giving up the last one. Readers won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended.