The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is a powerful novel about one man’s journey in faith. as he journeys through life in the early 1800s. Set in Richland County, part of the Ohio frontier in 1811, this work takes the reader into the mind of Thomas Keene, a Congregational minister who has lost his faith and uses the challenges of frontier life to find his way. Nissenson’s novel is a marriage of fact and fiction, written journal-style as entries in a “waste book.” For Keene, his waste book becomes more then just an account of his monetary transactions. The writer includes drawings and illustrations that enhance the story being told. It is this inclusion of drawings, maps and woodcuts that gives the reader greater insight into the thoughts of this complex and driven man.
At the start of the “accounting” in his waste book, Thomas has only $17.62 to his name and numerous problems. Among these are the facts that he has started a still, drinks too much, and suddenly finds himself fancying the widow of a nearby farmer, Fanny. Fanny is not the only inhabitant of Richland County that Keene finds fascinating. Keene he is also intrigued by John Chapman, who is otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed. In particular, Thomas finds the relationship between the Delaware Indians and John Chapman to be one of the key factors in his life during the years between 1811 through 1812. As the waste book entries unfold, so does the state of mind that has driven Thomas from his safe New England home to the unknown frontier of Ohio. The language, situations and content provide a revealing look into what goes through the mind of a man who has lost all his faith and is facing the most challenging part of his life.
Nissenson takes topics and situations that might otherwise be difficult to read, and makes them palpable, by writing the book in the format of a waste book. This format allows the reader to pick up and read just a few entries, weeks or days apart, without losing the rhythm or pace of the novel. Though the situations and issues that Keene and his fellow settlers encounter do not display the usual heroism that has come to be a more typical depiction of America’s westward expansion, there is a element of honesty in Nissenson’s style, which makes the work more believable. Although a refreshing novel, the language and situations depicted by the author will make this book appeal primarily to those who do not still idolize America’s early settlers.