The Shade Tree
In the 1930s, Ellie and Mavis Turner live on their father’s failing Florida orange grove. Ellie is head-turningly beautiful, her father’s spoiled favourite. Selfish, mean-spirited, vindictive, lustful, and a proficient liar, she bears a striking resemblance to Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames. When her father sells her to a rich landowner in exchange for badly-needed money, Ellie is outraged but pays dearly for her underestimation of the man’s determination to have her. Her refusal to marry him is the catalyst for all that follows.
Young Mavis wholeheartedly believes in her older sister’s good nature, despite everything she sees to the contrary. Although slow to take root, Mavis’s character grows and matures as she seeks to understand why white privilege is so endemic it is barely noticed. Juxtaposed against Mavis’s growing maturity, Ellie inevitably sees herself as the victim and can justify her actions as warranted revenge for whatever has been done to her. Shea does little to forward Ellie’s growth beyond her churlish cruelty and petulance, and this serves the narrative well.
A midwife, living on the Yates plantation, Sliver is always there to catch new life as it emerges, regardless of colour or parentage. She is the sieve through which the events run, filtering out right from wrong and bringing perspective. Her silence about much of what she sees and feels is well-founded, but some secrets should not be kept forever.
For fifty years, readers share a harrowing journey with these three women, whose lives become inextricably entwined. The novel explores young white women’s attraction (although forbidden) to Black men. With non-Black authors currently discouraged from writing Black stories, Shea successfully finds neutral ground in this situation, leaving the reader to discern the innumerable wrongs and the uplifting rights. Mesmerizing, engrossing, and brilliantly plotted, this is an achievement that will echo long after the last page is turned.