by Suzanne Matson; New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 2005, 224 pages, $23.95
Dr. Bennington-Davis is affiliated with Cascadia Behavioral Health Care, Portland, Oregon.
The novel The Tree-Sitter is, as much as anything else, the story of a young woman who is coming of age. The protagonist, Julie Prince, is familiarly engaged in a triad of her first obsessive love, disentanglement from her very involved single mother, and passion for a cause that is related to the obsessive love. The book is written in Julie's voice, from a post-September 11, 2001, vantage point.
Suzanne Matson, the author, has successfully woven aspects of her own life into the book. She was educated at Portland State University, then received a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She now teaches poetry and fiction writing at Boston College. She is the author of books of poetry and fiction—Sea Level, Durable Goods, The Hunger Moon, and A Trick of Nature. Her writing in The Tree-Sitter is rhythmic, sometimes funny, and always elegant.
The passionate cause could have been anything that Julie's lover—a radical environmental activist graduate student named Neil—chose, but in this case it is a growing and appalled awareness of a 1999 assault on Oregon's old growth forests. Julie—the product of a Wellesley-educated mother, an attorney from Boston whose orchestrated life included choosing the right donor characteristics from the local sperm bank (such as reasonable height, high IQ, and no known mental illness)—leaves her privileged East Coast college life in order to accompany Neil for the summer to protest deforestation by tree-sitting in Oregon. The venture takes an ecoterrorist turn at nearly the same time that Julie realizes that Neil's passion ends with the environment.
The reader is an intimate observer of Julie's maturing, from her first day in the forest, imagining romantic interludes with Neil and renaming herself "Emerald," to her growing absorption in the environment. We also see her from her infatuation with Neil to her realization of, and involvement in, his zealotry and militancy, and from her determination to break away from her mother to needing and embracing her love.
An Oregonian myself, I was intrigued by the description of the old-growth forests, the city of Eugene, and the act of tree-sitting. But the novel is not, after all, a political or environmental statement. It is, simply, a story of a young woman growing up. One does not always like Julie, always dislike her, or always agree with her, but the moral dilemmas she faces are familiar to anyone glancing backward at their twenties.