THE CICADA TREE
“blindsides with creative intelligence, leaping across genre boundaries in elegant prose to weave a wholly symphonic experience with all the hallmarks of an instant cult classic.”/2020
The coming-of-age concerns in Robert Gwaltney’s riveting The Cicada Tree are set against a surreal Southern backdrop so plausibly staged as to seem par for the course throughout the first-person narrative of Analeise Newell, who unfurls a fantastic story in hindsight about the perils of obsession. Analeise ominously begins, “It was the cicadas’ singing I remember best—their courting song. It was frenetic beckoning for the affection of another that stirred the heat to reckless speeds that summer, the summer I turned eleven.”
It is 1956 Providence, Georgia, and young Analeise lives in a humble house with her mother, Grace, who lives apart from Analiese’s hard-drinking, shiftless father. Beneath their roof cohabitates Miss Wessie and her eleven-year-old granddaughter, Etta Mae. The foursome is a harmonious, biracial family, the girls in school as Miss Wessie keeps house, while Grace works multiple jobs, including part-time domestic work for the Mayfields—the wealthiest family in town who live in an opulent mansion and maintain a mystique of legendary status.
The four main characters are each blessed with an extraordinary gift of otherworldly proportion: Etta Mae sings opera in the voice of an angel; Miss Wessie bears clear-sighted wisdom; and Grace, a talented seamstress, divines the future in her stitches and receives prescient hunches each time the scar she received from a snakebite throbs.
Analeise is a prodigy on the piano to the point where she can see and taste music, and explains, “Though Mama was brilliant with a needle and thread, it was her ability to read the future in her own sewing that was the true gift, an ability as deep down a part of her as the music inside me.” Analise describes Etta Mae’s singing by recounting its initial impact, “It seemed I was the only one who saw it. The only one to see Etta Mae’s voice turn into a real, seeable thing—puffs of breath blown in the winter’s cold… and I could taste it. Love and want. More of a texture than a flavor, cotton candy melting on my tongue, dissolving to a sugary grit.”
The high drama of The Cicada Tree centers on Analeise’s experience with the three members of the enigmatic Mayfield family who share a dark history. When Analeise comes into contact with Marlissa Mayfield at school, she, as well as all others in Malissa’s orbit, is beguiled by her charisma to the point of obsession.
At home, Miss Wessie tells Analeise to stay away from the Mayfields. “Them Mayfields ain’t for you,” Miss Wessie says, and when Analeise presses her to clarify rumor concerning Marlissa’s brother, Miss Wessie hesitantly confesses he was, “As blond as the rest of them, his eyes greener, a kind of shine that makes you feel a strange kind of way. That makes you want to be close. . . . All of them—Mr. Kingston, Miss Cordelia, and Marlissa. They all got it. An unnatural kind of charm.” Analeise admits, “I knew what it was like to stand in the shine of a Mayfield. So blinding you have to squint.”
Analeise Newell is a remarkable character, a deep-thinking, uniquely voiced, secret keeping Scout Finch with an exuberant edge you’d follow anywhere. Prone to mischief and grappling with complicated adolescent feelings including a dark, covetous envy, she knows she is pretty, yet in light of the strange goings on around her, she is also self-aware and says of herself, “But what did pretty matter if my inside parts did not match? I imagined my innards, discolored and mushy, a half-eaten watermelon left too long in the sun. I was layers of mean thoughts and murderous prayers. What else might I be capable of if a thing needed doing?”
The Cicada Tree has elements of mystery metaphorically set among a phenomenon of Biblical proportions occurring once every 13 years, and Gwaltney takes the reader into the middle of it when the town is overrun by a swarm of cicadas. Gwaltney leaves nothing unattended in the chaos, when the characters run home for cover. Analeise says, “The four of us moved in close, folding in together, weaving a knot. The song of the male cicada rose, the sound of millions of buckling tymbals. Vibrations passed through the walls with the rise of the racket, agitating the floor, worrying our feet. Our heads jerked and strained in all directions, keeping check on the walls, spying all the dark corners. The light from the dwindling candle distorted our faces, having its way until we were no longer ourselves. All of us left there growing mad from the sound.”
From her self-oriented view based on past actions, Analeise fears her and Etta Mae’s involvement: “The natural world had come undone, the delicate underpinnings unhinged and knocked loose by a song. Etta Mae, she had been the one to do it, to raze the place with hail—to unleash this plague of cicadas. But whose fault was it really? Had I not been the one to strike the blow, to set the plan?”
Blending gothic elements into Southern fiction paired with musical notes of magical realism, Robert Gwaltney’s The Cicada Tree blindsides with creative intelligence, leaping across genre boundaries in elegant prose to weave a wholly symphonic experience with all the hallmarks of an instant cult classic.