Mercy Heron has never been sheltered from the truths of life. She was raised on a small southern Appalachian farm at the base of Crooktop Mountain by her cold church-deacon grandfather and her loving but crazy grandmother. Father Heron cannot forget that Mercy was born from his defiant and sinful daughter. Mamma Rutha lives in her own world of herbs and trees and mountain. Mercy dreams of the ocean:
[S]ometimes I wondered if God had messed up. . . . 'Cause why would God plan it out like this? Put me on a mountain, without a momma or a daddy. Give me to a grandfather that I won't ever be holy enough to belong to. And then fill my head with dreams about a land I've never seen.Mercy's one joy in life is her friendship with Della DeMar. At age fourteen, the two girls vow to stand by each other no matter what—no matter that Father Heron won't let trailer trash like Della on his property, no matter that townsfolk think Mercy may be just as nuts as her grandmother.
Once she graduated high school, Mercy took a full-time job in the town's diner. She saves her money, tactfully avoids her boss's advances, and stays out her grandfather's sight as much as possible. As summer comes to end, Mercy feels the grip of the mountain; there will be no college for her and no escape to the wider world. Then she meets Trout Price, a mater-picking migrant worker, lower than Della, lower even than the mountain folk, and Mercy Heron is unprepared for the aftershocks.
No one seems to rest easy in the small-town world of Crooktop Mountain, and some secrets are held so closely that even those who have lived there all their lives are oblivious. Through Mercy Heron, Keener has expertly revealed the many layers of rural prejudices and hidden segments of Appalachian life. The Killing Tree is not a novel about the romance of a simpler life, it's an examination of a young woman who struggles to understand her family and her own conflicting hopes and expectations.
How can Mercy see herself as she really is when she is constantly bombarded by the unchanging opinions of her town. As a result, she is haunted by mirrors—from the watery mirror that threatens to break when she first meets Trout, to the cruel mirror Father Heron shoves in her face, to the beautiful mirror that is her lasting gift from the mater migrant. And when we look in Mercy's mirrors, do we see ourselves?
Keener also explores contrasting relationships and the effects that different lifestyles have on those involved. From businessman and teenager to mountain folk and valley farmer to Mercy's closed world and Trout's rootless existence. How do lovers influence each other? Can any good come out of crossing the line into new territory?
Published by Center Street, 2009
Challenges: 100+, 999, A-Z Title, New Author