Skip to main content

Retro Reading: Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven by Karen Salyer McElmurray


I'm not sure what I just read.

However, if you're looking for a perfectly literary book, then this would be for you. In total, there's probably a total of five pages of dialogue.

Had I known this would be a purely narrative novel, chances are I wouldn't have read it and I'd be none the wiser.

Set in Kentucky in both present day and in the past, the story focuses on the Wallen family- Ruth, Earl and their son, Andrew and how they had gotten to this day, Aug. 16, 1983.

As the book begins, Andrew is waiting for his friend, Henry Ward to come and pick him up. Before he leaves for the night, he hides outside the house watching Ruth.

She knows that he's going out with Henry and isn't happy about it. She's never really liked him and now loathes him even more.

This was probably the only part of the book in which I knew what was going on.

For the first flashback, Ruth is a young girl who adores her mother and is slightly afraid of her father, Tobias, a coal miner.

Occasionally, he slaps her mother around and one day, she leaves never returning. This of course leads Ruth to grow up with just her father.

After having lost his job in the mines, he becomes much more religious and brings Ruth deeper into the fold. Tobias expects the same from Ruth as he did from her mother, which causes friction between them.

Scroll to Continue

Earl, on the other hand, dreams of having a writing career in music as well as being a great singer or radio personality.

Once he comes back from serving in World War II, he settles back home in Ohio and one day decides to pick up and leave. Shortly thereafter, his father dies and about three weeks later, his mother passes away. Eventually, he winds up in Inez, Kentucky where he gets an announcer job.

He eventually meets Tobias at the diner while the patrons are shooting craps. Tobias cleans them all out and Earl finds out where Tobias lives and he begins to come over regularly where they drink and play poker.

Slowly he becomes interested in Ruth and they marry, much to Tobias' dismay, but he accepts the marriage.

A few years later, Andrew is born and through self discovery, realizes that he's attracted to men. Ruth finds him dressed in an old nightgown (belonging to her mother and a necklace of hers as he sings love songs to himself.

She doesn't say anything to him and keeps this information to herself.

At times, the book does become interesting and is hard to put down, but for the most part, it's hard to tell who the main character is as they each recall their past. It's a good idea, but without dialogue, it's pretty boring.

The ending is confusing (probably because I had lost interest) but it's what happens in the beginning that makes you want to trudge on.

Ruth and Earl dominate the story with Andrew's being a relatively small role.

It would have been good to know what Ruth's feelings were, did Earl know and to get to know Andrew better would have been helpful. I just didn't feel as though I knew any of the characters and what they were doing.

The only good thing to come from this, is it did free up some space on the bookshelf.

Related Articles