Why the Tree Loves the Ax

Why the Tree Loves the Ax

4.5 2
by Jim Lewis

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After an astounding debut with his novel Sister, Jim Lewis once again proves his remarkable talent with Why the Tree Loves the Ax.

Caroline Harrison is a young woman drifting across the country from a secret past to an uncertain future. Stranded by accident in a small Texas city, she decides to settle down and stay, only to have her peaceSee more details below


After an astounding debut with his novel Sister, Jim Lewis once again proves his remarkable talent with Why the Tree Loves the Ax.

Caroline Harrison is a young woman drifting across the country from a secret past to an uncertain future. Stranded by accident in a small Texas city, she decides to settle down and stay, only to have her peace destroyed by a moment of inspired fury. From there she's on the run, to New York City to confront her ex-husband, and then upstate, where she lands in a small house in the woods inhabited by three men and an eight-year-old boy—a tiny criminal community. But will they help her or hurt her? And what exactly are they scheming?

This is a story of female violence, fear, and resourcefulness. It is a meditation on identity and memory. Lewis's writing is deft and haunting, and the story establishes a new model for women's narrative. Why the Tree Loves the Ax is sure to put Lewis in the pantheon of important young American writers.

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Editorial Reviews

Sally Eckhoff

Instead of making a splash when she moved into the southern hamlet of Sugartown, Caroline Harrison made a big dent: After rolling her car just outside the city limits, she had to be carried into town on a stretcher. Fortunately for her, the talented Jim Lewis has contrived to make his heroine a little less than human, and thus she survives. From square one, the author's decision to create a protagonist with a sharp outline, a sinister profile and not much depth rates as a stylish move in contemporary fiction. If that's also how you make a paper doll, it needs to be said that Lewis is a pretty hot guy with the scissors.

Being a pansexual, turn-of-the-millennium rolling stone has to be a lonely job. Because she's introduced in such a violent fashion and so soon thereafter takes on the quiet life of a nursing-home employee, Caroline is wired to explode, and sure enough, she does, but not until someone throws a drink on the mayor at a town picnic. The ensuing chaos quickly becomes a riot. Seeing a handcuffed man being savaged by two angry cops, Caroline hefts a baseball bat and swings for one of the uniformed heads. But nobody sees her do it: "In one sweet move I had skipped sideways about a hundred feet," she says, and she's free to go on the lam, finally winding up clear on the other side of the country in a different kind of trouble.

A disaffected, timely thriller like this one is founded on the idea that, given certain historical conditions, even a normal citizen's actions won't make much sense. However, the plausibility issue screws up this promising novel because its telling assumes too much of the reader's moral attitude, not too little. Ostensibly, we are to see the assault as neither good nor bad, and yet it has "noble deed" written all over it: Cops abuse people; cops beat people; kill bad cops. This splinter of a problem gradually becomes a wedge. Of course, you can write any book, have the character of your choice step up to the plate and do any hugely significant deed without preface or explanation and be well within your artistic rights. But why would you want to?

Lewis' answer -- and I'm sure he has one -- is unavailable to readers at present, as is the inspiration for this very strange but ultimately intelligent book. Let's just hope neither one of these elements falls into somebody else's hands before he's had his chance to rope and wrangle them himself. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I was 27 years old and I had lost my way," confesses Caroline Harrison, the seductive, shape-shifting narrator of Lewis's second novel (after Sister), minutes before totaling her car outside the remote city of Sugartown, Tex. Thus begins a hallucinatory tale of violence and disguises, spiritual disorientation and wanderlust that will eventually carry Caroline from a troubled marriage in Manhattan across the country and back. In chapters framed as responses to the interrogations of a voice whose identity is concealed until the last chapter, Caroline gradually reveals, in an affectless manner, the patterns of self-destruction and self-invention that define her life. Recovering from her injuries in a hospital in Sugartown, she forges an application for a job as an orderly at a retirement home called Eden View, a haunted purgatory of aging transients. She soon befriends two Sugartown loners, Bonnie, a free-spirited bartender, and Billy, a violently deranged Eden View denizen, who presents Caroline with a shoebox he asks her to deliver to friends on the outside while forbidding her to look at its contents. When a riot erupts in Sugartown, Caroline hears imaginary voices directing her to kill a policeman with a baseball bat; when Bonnie dies in the ensuing violence, Caroline assumes her identity and flees north towards a showdown with Billy's circle--three fugitives and an angelic child printing counterfeit money in upstate New York. Lewis's fluid evocation of the shattered lives and landscapes Caroline traverses is occasionally upset by passages of overheated sex and baffling dream visions; and what seems a gradual, suspenseful build-up to the real story behind Caroline's madness remains frustratingly unrealized. But the story line's very unreliability, and what it suggests about how we view our lives, is certainly as much Lewis's point as his protagonist's sad odyssey through the perdition of contemporary America. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Caroline has been wandering from city to city trying to find a place to settle. Literally crashing into Sugartown, Texas, she decides to stay. She takes a job in a nursing home and meets Billy, a mean old man who nevertheless intrigues her. She also befriends Bonnie, who like Caroline is wandering through life. During a Labor Day celebration that turns into a riot, Caroline kills a policeman. Before skipping town, she pays one last visit to Billy, who gives her a mysterious box to deliver to an address in upstate New York. Arriving at a house in the woods, Caroline discovers three men and a boy who are up to something. Are they friendly or not? Is she responsible for the policeman's death? Part mystery, part psychological sketch, this intriguing novel from the author of Sister (Graywolf, 1993) is slow to start, but the narrative soon picks up, taking the reader through the many mental twists and turns of the life of a very disturbed woman. For larger collections.Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., Ohio
Sarah Ferguson
Why the Tree Loves the Ax is a literary suspense novel that actually delivers -- a page turner that will keep readers guessing until the end, their curiosity fueled as much by the book's gorgeously inventive imagery as by its seductive plot. -- New York Times Book Review

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