Under the Mercy Trees: A Novel

Under the Mercy Trees: A Novel

3.9 13
by Heather Newton

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“[An] eloquent, sorrowful novel....Readers of both Pat Conroy, on one hand, and Carson McCullers, on the other, will relish Newton’s flawed characters and piquant portrayal of small town life.”
Booklist (starred review)


Under The Mercy Trees will take your breath away.”



“[An] eloquent, sorrowful novel....Readers of both Pat Conroy, on one hand, and Carson McCullers, on the other, will relish Newton’s flawed characters and piquant portrayal of small town life.”
Booklist (starred review)


Under The Mercy Trees will take your breath away.”

—Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart


Heather Newton’s Under the Mercy Trees is a beautifully rendered, heartbreaking first novel that heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in Southern fiction. The poignant and unforgettable story of a man forced to face his troubled past when he returns to his small hometown in the mountains of North Carolina following the disappearance of his brother, Under the Mercy Trees adds the name Heather Newton to a sterling list of acclaimed authors in the Southern literary tradition that already includes Reynolds Price, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, and Tom Franklin.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Heather Newton's short stories have appeared in Crucible, Encore, Wellspring, and elsewhere She lives with her family in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is an attorney and mediator.

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Under the Mercy Trees 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Delphimo More than 1 year ago
The book reminded me of The Sound and the Fury with all the different voices. The characters did not tell their own story, but an uninterested narrator explained each person. The story begins with the disappearance of the oldest of 5 siblings of a rural, mountainous town. The family and friends gather to search for the missing Leon. In the course of the narrator's ramblings, the reader learns that Martin, the youngest, is a homosexual, and that Liza, a family friend, ignores this for decades. Bertie, the wife of James, had a brief 3 day fling and no one in the town knows with whom. Sister Ivy has led a terrible life with being raped at 13 years old by a friend of Leon. And Eugenia is the "holy" woman that attends church, but has a vicious tongue. Heather Newton presents characters with all their flaws and not glossed over life Hollywood stars. As each character realizes their short comings, the story suddenly ends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ajmayhew More than 1 year ago
I read this book in three days (would have read it straight through if I'd had the uninterrupted time). There are five adult siblings in the Owenby family of Solace Fork, NC (rural, mountain community where "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Owenby"), one of whom goes missing, and one of whom--long-gone prodigal son--returns home. The story unfolds in four masterfully controlled points of view, and by the end of the book, it was clear to me why the author chose the voices she did, and why some characters were not narrators. This book is in one sense a mystery, although finding out "who-dunnit" is not what carries the reader almost compulsively through to the end...it is those individual stories. I simply had to know what was going to happen to Martin--on the one hand, unsympathetic (broke, out of work, unmotivated except to buy Scotch)--but also a man of great feeling. He's wounded but has a strange compassion for his relatives. He hasn't been able to come out to anyone in Solace Fork as gay, and has chosen instead to stay away from them. Liza--the main narrator--for many years has pined for Martin, not realizing on a conscious level that he is gay. She is deeply shaken by her father's death, and becomes disconnected with her husband, a good man; as a reader, I wanted her to know what a rich and fulfilled life she has, with two healthy daughters and a loving hunk of a husband. Then there's "crazy" Ivy, who may by book's end, seem the sanest of them all. She became so dear to me, and I found it fitting that she was quite important to the story's conclusion...also makes me want to be more sympathetic next time I hear of someone being labeled psychotic or schizophrenic. There are so many more stories...Bertie, whose almost accidental infidelity becomes understandable, so much so that I hoped for forgiveness from her husband. Eugenia...well, don't get me started...I never did come to like her, but the author skillfully helped me to see why Eugenia was the way she was. Ditto for Leon...couldn't believe I ultimately empathized with him. There are also characters readers love to hate--Bobby & Cherise (ugh), who fulfill their reason for being, but are never nice. The way the story unfolds is another strength of this novel, and a sign of a sure-handed writer. We'll be in the middle of a present-day narration when a character's thought will lead to a masterfully revealed back story. Neither does Newton fall into the trap that catches less adept writers...not every character's story comes to a certain conclusion. When you've read this book, you'll see that it would have come close to boring if all the stories had been brought to a neat end. And boring is a word that cannot be applied to anything about this amazing piece of work. I look forward to more from Heather Newton.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MStefanides More than 1 year ago
This debut novel by North Carolina attorney Heather Newton is a deeply moving account of the Owenby family's harsh life in a rural southern county. The story spans decades of multiple generations of Owenbys pushing through their lives, with seemingly little satisfaction or enjoyment. The plot initially seems to be the mystery of the disappearance of Leon, one of the five Owenby siblings who are the centerpiece of the story. But very quickly, we learn that the real stories are the characters-Leon and his siblings and two generations before and after them; long-time family friends; teachers of both academics and life. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters, all but one sister's told in third person. Ivy, who most people believe is seriously mentally ill but who really sees and interacts with ghosts, tells her own story. Back and forth, the stories of each character unfold throughout the years, always coming back to the present and the search for Leon, or at least his body. Finding Leon and learning what happened to him cannot be told outside the context of the complicated family dynamics that have played out through the many generations of this family. What start out as back stories for each character quickly become pieces of the puzzle of Leon's disappearance, and what it represents to the family. The Owenbys and their friends are simple country people, what some folks would disparagingly refer to as "backward". Martin, the youngest of the five siblings, is able to escape and attend college, but the great personal cost makes him wonder at times if it was worth it. A few of the family friends have also "made it", working their way into positions of respect within the community. There are no stereotypes here. Newton lays bare each character's flaws, as harsh as some are, and good qualities. As is the case with real people, there is almost always something that makes each character sympathetic in some way. There are precious few who do not endear themselves to me in some way, however small. Under the Mercy Trees poignantly illustrates the fact that even the most simple people, people who most of society either ignore or wish didn't even exist, are complex and filled with emotion. Every human being has a story to tell-intricate, sometimes tragic, and sometimes triumphant stories. There are no happily ever after endings here, but most of the characters come to some type of resolution and acceptance of their lives, although much of that acceptance carries a heavy shroud of regrets. Like Ivy's ghosts, who surround her every waking and often sleeping minute, these characters will swirl around me for some time. As fictional as they are, they are too real to be shaken out of my mind simply because I have closed the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
nyauthoress More than 1 year ago
Inspired by an incident in her husband's family, debut author Heather Newton explores human regret, broken relationships and loss of family communication in Under the Mercy Trees, a January 18, 2011 paperback release from Harper Publishing. During her childhood, Ms. Newton and her siblings played on a tree which looked much like an elephant trunk, believing it was magical. The book's title, Under the Mercy Trees, is reminiscent of those trees that were ravaged by Hurricane Hazel. The trees survived but grew mangled and askew, much like Ms. Newton's characters. With stellar craftsmanship, the author delves into difficult family issues. Character rather than plot driven, the novel is dark and honest. The author moves fluidly between numerous voices and points of view. We sympathize with her characters and long for them to find healing. Set in small-town Solace Fork, North Carolina in the 1950s and the 1980s, the plot of Under the Mercy Trees centers around the disappearance of sixty-five-year- old Leon Owenby, eldest of five siblings. Newton's characters stand in the autumn of their lives, disillusioned and resigned to their existences. They dance to a stinging tune of sibling abuse, molestation, homophobia, intolerance and suicide. Some find redemption in their relationships with each other and God. Others sit isolated-as Newton describes- "like a broken desk waiting to be taken out with the trash," longing for a morsel of the solace for which their town is named. Liza, high-school girlfriend to youngest sibling, Martin, aptly articulates the premise of the novel. Upon considering the trees, she asks, "Did they remember the trauma that bent them, or had they gotten on with things?" Although the swarm of characters may overwhelm the reader at first, their dilemmas are gripping and honest. Bitterness breeds in the Owenby family, but welcome hints of healing enrich the novel, like a hymn sung during a baptism: "There is a calm, a sure retreat; 'Tis found beneath the mercy seat." Ms. Newton astounds by revealing the damage done by lack of communication between family members whose dreams are long gone. Under the Mercy Trees is a brave examination of a family we may publicly shun, but secretly fear might be our own. An impressive first novel recommended for those who appreciate character studies and family dramas. I thank Harper Collins Paperbacks and LibraryThing for supplying me with this review copy. The opinions expressed are unbiased and wholly my own. Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
BookReviewsByMolly More than 1 year ago
I am not sure how to really go into this review. I both liked it and disliked it. I disliked it because it was such a long story that was drug out too much, at times. I liked it, however, because this first time author really shows talent and created a complex, dramatic story that is life like and filled with characters who have flaws. Not fake-y stuff. Simple, normal, and even dysfunctional flaws. That's what brings out the complexity of the novel. I am still, too, a little unsure of Martin's character. Ms. Newton did a good job with all the characters in the novel, yes, but Martin's character...well, simply put, he was a bit too unusual for me. He lived in New York with Dennis, his lover, but had to come home to North Carolina to help with the mysterious disappearance of his brother, Leon. He kept his gayness in the closet when he was in North Carolina and focused on being there with his family and his long time friend and once, a girlfriend, Liza. In simple terms: he had to face his past. Told in different family member's perspective this novel is filled with mystery, grief, love, hope and longing-a little something for all types of readers. The plot is unique and could have been told by a seasoned author, the way Ms. Newton used her descriptive detail and her talented words. It is, as I said, a very dramatic styled story and it comes to life before the reader However, all this being said, it is not one that I,myself, would read again and again, due to my personal tastes. As I said in the beginning, I both liked it for it's complexity and disliked it for it's slowness and length. But, that will not stop me from recommending it with 3 stars for those who like the longer, slow paced drams styled stories. I will also read more books from Ms. Newton in the future, in hopes that I will find something by her that is absolutely mind blowing!
JP-WASHINGTON More than 1 year ago
I love a good drama, and this one was surely that. The eloquent writing style of this author makes it hard to believe this is her debut book. The imagery and wonderfully descriptive style of this story made it a true delight to read. As the story progressed, somewhat slowly at times, I found myself becoming very attached to the Owenby family. Each family member was flawed in some way and you couldn't help as a reader, to become invested in their lives. While the entire lot of characters were dysfunctional, as a whole they seemed to mesh and they all played an integral part in each other's lives and in the story itself. What I especially admired was that by the end of the story they were, for the most part, able to come to terms with their own lives and achieve some sort of peace of mind. While the overall tone of the story was sad and depressing, it didn't take away from my reading enjoyment. Let's face it, not everything works out all the time, and it was refreshing to read a story that allowed for this bit of reality.
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Martin Owenby and the Owenby family. When Martin's brother, Leon disappears, he heads home to North Carolina and the difficulties he left behind. A failed writer living a drunken existence in New York, heading back to his home town brings more things he must face. Heather Newton's novel blends the past with the present an each chapter is written from one character's point of view. The reader gets to feel what these family members are thinking; this family filled with love, grief, jealousy, hate, dreams and doubts and hopefully forgiveness. A fine debut novel.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1986 in Willoby County, North Carolina, Leon Owenby disappears without a trace. His younger brother wannabe writer Martin leaves New York City to come home to help in the search for Leon. Martin leaves behind in Manhattan his former lover Dennis and their dying friends as the AIDS epidemic has devastated the New York gay community like a modern day Black Plague. In North Carolina, Martin resents being back in the closet as he has always hid his sexual preference from family and friends. He even had a girlfriend in high school, who still loves him. Months pass with no progress in finding the missing Leon, but so many family secrets have been revealed; yet perhaps because of his previous self-protective training growing up as a closet gay, no one knows about Martin's New York lifestyle or at least no one will openly raise it. Told mostly by Martin although there are other perspectives with each containing their own personality, fans will enjoy this interesting "historical" family drama in which the Reagan era feels like ancient history with its pre Information/Communication age. The premise for the family gathering in Willoby is strong, but their remaining in the county over several months turns the storyline somewhat weak. Still readers will appreciate this enticing tale of secrets revealed by an ensemble cast with diverse emotional needs wearing family masks to conceal those personal issues assumed would lead to excommunication of that person. Harriet Klausner