In a Temple of Trees
Suzanne Hudson
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In a Temple of Trees

Suzanne Hudson
MacAdam/Cage Publishing
366 pages
September 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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There was a saying when I was growing up: "Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought him back." In a Temple of Trees exemplifies this adage, as 12-year-old Cecil Durgin witnesses a foul deed late one night at a hunting lodge where a group of powerful local white men gather to play what is euphemistically called "The Game."

Curiosity is a dangerous thing for an African-American boy in 1958, deep in the West Alabama woods where the night is filled with the egomaniacal brutality of hunters whose reputations are based on their wealth and prowess with guns. After the hunt, they drink themselves stupid, feeding aberrant sexual hungers on the flesh of a young woman hired for the occasion. Such men don't want witnesses to their depravity. Cecil's memories of that fateful night torment him for decades to come. These privileged men haunt Cecil's past and menace the present.

Times change and politics shift, offering blacks a voice in the future. Cecil is an able spokesperson, a preacher and radio-station owner-announcer who wields a power of his own but remains haunted by his terrible knowledge. The men from the lodge, older but still powerful, sense a threat in Cecil's demeanor, a threat to the reputations they have protected so assiduously. True to form, the men return to time-honored methods of intimidation, with the assistance of white-sheeted Klan members. Grown tired of his ancient burden, Cecil is unwilling to bow before these hypocrites even one more time.

This isn't Faulkner's South, dripping with ennui. This is the everyday reality of racism without romanticizing the seductive charm of the South. Hudson writes about life vile, brutal and often shockingly tender. The fašade of innocence stripped of pretense, she reveals the dangerous fallacies that roil below the surface. This is a story that begs to be told from its hiding place behind the placid face of our society, a tale that is deeply rooted out of view and nurtured in the moist soil of prejudice. Such dank growth is blistered by deformity, bitterly feeding on man's lowest impulses, imbued with a twisted Darwinian intent.

In this important novel, a privileged few protected by their wealth callously crush the innocent, hiring out arrogant misogynists to do their dirty work. The puppetmasters pull the strings while their blank-eyed marauders dance in the firelight, a ghostly band of faceless terrorists. But Hudson's characters, black and white, are defined by their struggles -- none more so than Cecil. The women are no mere shadows of their husbands, but driven to keeping secrets to protect loved ones. One ill-used woman from long ago is at the core of it all, begging Cecil for respite. Unflinching, Hudson takes on the town's elitists and the Klan. Her portrayal of the Klan is so realistic that the ignorant race-baiting remarks shimmer against the page, vivid with evil intent. Such memories are branded into the history of this land, defining cowardice, hate and intimidation.

Hudson creates her own effigy of these straw men, burning them at the stake dry-eyed. Their implicit brutality morphs into posturing when exposed to the light of day: bullies all, who can only perform under cover of night. This author has the voice to tell this story where, at least once, truth prevails over ignominy. Standing straight and proud, she answers back to years of history, of blistering intolerance and terrible deeds, without ever raising her voice. Thank you, Ms. Hudson, for purging my mute impotence with your clarity.

Click here for Luan Gaines' interview with In a Temple of Trees author Suzanne Hudson

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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