It seems that modern fiction has always provided plenty of insight into the coming-of-age of the female gender. Recently, however, a surge of stories about the opposite sex are quickly threatening Holden Caulfield’s stranglehold on the genre.
The most recent addition to a growing list that includes Green Grass Grace by Philadelphia author Shawn McBride, I’m Not Scared by Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by British author Mark Haddon, In the Cherry Tree is an atmospheric time capsule of 1970s suburbia, authentically told through the eyes of twelve-year-old Timmy. It is a world where static, peripheral fathers with drinks-in-hand seem to contribute to a contagion of restlessness and dissatisfaction among their wives and where all of the adults seem to act with a general disregard to the hormonally and emotionally challenged children who stand witness to their actions.
Over the course of the summer of Timmy’s twelfth year, his mother and father (“The Mom” and “The Dad”) rend a failing marriage, his dog dies, he discovers masturbation, and his childhood buddies (Mik, Stev, and Tiger) desert him for new towns, new friends, and the safety of a mother’s bosom.
Despite these cataclysmic changes, Timmy is surprisingly upbeat. He spends most of his time memorizing his favorite lines to the latest movies and television shows, collecting lists of the “Top 30 Songs of the Week Based on Sales and Requests in Big D Country” and obsessing endlessly about boners and boobs. While Timmy seems barely competent to deal with these changes, his emotional capacity still seems to outweigh that of the adults around him who are constantly overreacting and continually creating scenes of turmoil, and is certainly better than his friends who find solace in splattering frogs against rocks, running home to hide under mother’s wing after merely the slightest offense, or who use mayonnaise and dogs as sexual objects.
While Timmy does not tell us his deepest thoughts, In the Cherry Tree does not lack a sense of his insights and emotions. The tone is stunningly foreboding. Pope’s writing captures an atmosphere of tension caused by uncertainty and change in a string of chapter vignettes that are shrouded in a dreamlike state of memory and nostalgia. There is a heavy sense that something terrible is hanging over Timmy’s head and that his battle between childhood and adulthood, on the cusp of adolescence, will be hard won. He faces a conundrum that has two solutions, and he continually struggles to pick the right one. His desire to get tickets to an Evel Knievel show belies his growing understanding of the language of actions and consequences.
In keeping with the style of the great Greek tragedies, Timmy is a hero of tremendous strength and growth. The cleansing summer rains have helped him wash away the last vestiges of childhood and brought with them a sultry understanding of adult dynamics. By the eve of his thirteenth birthday, Timmy is no longer ignorant of the life going on around him, or of the possibilities that lie ahead for both achievement and failure.
Pope’s novel, like Timmy, is a bit of a dichotomy, a combination character study and period piece. Most of our understanding of Timmy is via the book’s setting and mood when most of the setting is described to us in Timmy’s own words. Written in a conversational style, it is an easy read but touches on the important coming-of-age issues in a boy’s life and leaves one glad not to go through it all again but appreciating the difficulty of the tasks that lie ahead of Timmy, and with a sense of hope for who he will become.