Rage. That’s the feeling engulfing the car as Ellen’s mother swerves over to the hard-shoulder and orders her daughter out onto the roadside. Ignoring the protests of her other children, she accelerates away, leaving Ellen standing on the gravel verge in her school pinafore and knee socks as the light fades.
What would you do as you watch your little sister getting smaller in the rear view window? How far would you be willing to go to help her? The Gallagher children are going to find out. This moment is the beginning of a summer that will change everything.
Set in the early 1980s over one long hot summer in Pennsylvania, Una Mannion’s A Crooked Tree explores the unintended consequences of an ill-fated, split second decision.
With elements of coming-of-age bleeding throughout the story, but far from a typical YA novel, A Crooked Tree is told from the first-person perspective of Ellen’s fifteen-year-old sister Libby. She’s observant and mature — a little timid, introverted and withdrawn at times — and when Ellen’s sister returns home after being cast aside on the road, Libby helps pick up the pieces. What results is a sequence of events that change their lives forever. None of them will be the same again.
“Why hadn’t I told her? I put my hand on the door to open it and call her back, to say we needed help. But I hated asking people for things. Maybe she would pass Ellen on her way down the mountain. I began to think of all the people that might pass Ellen on their way home.”
A Crooked Tree is about how fast events can spiral out of control, and how powerless you can feel to stop them. After Ellen returns, she reveals she hitchhiked from the road and was molested by a creepy, blonde-haired man. She jumped out of his car and scrambled home before he could find her. When their sister Marie gets local boy Wilson McVay involved, things escalate.
Una balances dark scenes and themes with moments of humour and teenage angst. The secluded woods that surround their home give Libby and her siblings some comfort amidst a tumultuous summer. Their mother, Faye, is quite absent in the story, but we witness enough of her to understand she’s exhausted and stressed. Libby’s father died years earlier and the family were still struggling to comprehend the absence in their dysfunctional family unit.
“Everyone was running to the fence by the woods; some were already halfway up. I panicked, looking for the ladder, trying to orient myself. Then I realised that the surface of the pool was shimmering with red and blue light. The police had pulled the car up across the lawn to the gate. They had another amplified light angled at the pool.”
At times, the plot feels as if it’s on slow motion. Events slow, tension builds, and readers feel a sense of dread as each chapter passes. What did Wilson do to Ellen’s abuser? And what will this man do in retaliation? Una is an incredibly talented writer.
Exceptionally well-written and complex, I adored this book. It was just a nice surprise and an utter delight to experience. Una crafts vivid and three-dimensional characters, drawing us into their plight and ensnaring us in their journeys. A Crooked Tree captures the era of the 1980s incredibly well, and explores the complexities of youth within a compact package.
“The night we left Ellen on the road we were driving north up 252 near where it meets 202 and then crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To the west were open fields, stretches of golden prairie grass and butterfly weed, the final line of sun splintering light through them.”
Tense, evocative and ominous, A Crooked Tree is recommended for readers of literary fiction. Mature young readers may also delight in this tale.
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
A Crooked Tree
Allen & Unwin Book Publishers