Picks and Pans Review: The Tree of Life

UPDATED 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

by Hugh Nissenson

Why does the narrator of this novel, Thomas Keene, keep a journal? A preacher tells him, "Being certain you've lost eternal life, you must leave something of yourself behind." What survives is a spellbinding story of a man during the years 1811 and 1812. Keene is a former minister, an educated New Englander who can read both Latin and Hebrew. The death of his beloved wife destroys his belief in God, and he goes west to Ohio, still a frontier land. There he makes a living brewing and selling whiskey. When a young woman is widowed, Keene falls in love—despite the fact that he is twice her age. Keene's pictures, woodcuts, maps and plans for cabins (all by the author) illustrate this book. It's hard to believe that a former minister would include explicit sexual references even in a private journal back in 1811, but the rest of The Tree of Life is convincing. The despairing Indians, emboldened by guns and ammunition from the British, attack, and the shocking tortures they inflict on their captives are searing and unforgettable. Nissenson is the author of another novel, a memoir and two volumes of short stories. In this remarkable book a time, a place and a whole range of characters come to life; it is so ingenious that readers will feel as if they have been eyewitnesses to a moment in America's past. (Harper & Row, $15.95)

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