One chapter book reviews: The Wishing Trees

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You can't judge a book by its cover -- and it just goes to show you, because the cover of The Wishing Trees, by John Shors, is pretty awful. Decked out in pink with an apple blossom and a soft-focus photo, it might as well be an advertisement for a pill to make your kid stop wetting the bed, the little snippets of critical acclaim in fact warnings that it may cause seizures and nodal swelling. That, or it might just be one more hackneyed, maudlin tear-river about a family torn about by loss and et cetera. In fact, The Wishing Trees is such a familial tale, but if the chapter I read is any indication, it's also a lovely one, unassuming and nicely restrained.

In The Wishing Trees, which the book-jacket describes as the story of a father and daughter embarking upon an epic trip across Asia that the girl's deceased mother had always wanted to take, the chapters are not enumerated, but rather are broken up by the nation in Asia they're visiting, the chapters within those "nations" simply set off by little designs. Nevertheless, they are distinct, chapter-like chunks of narrative; the one I read was almost self-contained enough to be a short story on its own.

Which is really one of Shors' strengths as a writer, at least in this chapter; his allusions to the tragedy of the mother dying were mostly indirect, and more powerful for their subtlety:

Occasionally he glanced through the room's sole window, watching darkness creep into the world. Now that Kate was gone, darkness affected him differently. He though about her more often at night, for once Mattie had been born, night had brought them together in ways the day could not.

Just from those few sentences, it's nearly possible to get oriented as to what's going on in the narrative: Kate is the mother, Mattie is the daughter -- the father's name, incidentally, is Ian. In that scene, they're in Nepal, having just eaten dinner in the lobby of the hotel -- which is a cute scene which plays up the girl's age by making her suspicious of what she's eating.

Throughout the narrative, actually, Shors switches fairly quickly between the perspectives of the characters -- which he does effectively; it's never disorienting -- and one could probably say that he writes the perspective of the father a little more convincingly than that of the girl:

Somewhere in the distance, a guitar twanged to life. Mattie thought about Blake, and then her own friends back at school, wondering what they were doing, For some reason, she didn't miss them as much as she once thought she would. A part of her didn't want to see them. They seemed so happy. Their mothers were still alive.

Sure, young girls tend to be sort of dramatic, but that's probably laying it on a little thick. Still, those instances are sparse enough to ignore; the quiet action flows along on a gentle ebb, and Stors' spartan, unadorned writing style lends itself well to convincing dialog and the occasional beautiful image. And when the chapter closes with the father telling the girl a story about another little girl who forgot her sketch-pad and drew chalk drawings on cliffs instead, even though the rain would wash the drawings away, it's a sweet enough metaphor for creation and loss -- not to mention a deft allusion to eastern philosophy -- that it's only so much water under the bridge.

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