Likely Stories: Harry's Trees by Jon Cohen

May 28, 2020

Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen is a most peculiar story.  It begins with a tragic accident.  Jon is the author of two novels before Harry’s.  He was the recipient of an NEA fellowship for creative writing, and he was a cowriter of a film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Jon begins, “Oriana had lost a book.  It’s very special, Olive Perkins, the ancient librarian at the Pratt Public Library had told her.  Somebody had made it by hand.  When Olive gave it to Oriana, she almost couldn’t let go of it.  There was a look in the old woman’s eyes Oriana had never seen before, a fleeting indescribable expression.  Then Olive suddenly did the opposite, pushed The Grum’s Ledger into the young girl’s hands and moved her briskly toward the oak doors [of the Library].  ‘But there’s no due date,’ Oriana said.  Olive still stamped her books the old fashion way, with a rubber stamp on the Date Due slip pasted on the last page.  She was a tiny, bird-boned woman, but the stamp hit a book like John Henry’s hammer.  ‘It’s due when you’re done with it, child,’ Olive said.  She dropped her voice to a whisper.  ‘And remember.  You are my favorite reader, and now you are my

most important secret keeper.’  The big library doors closed behind Oriana. // It was wonderful.  A secret.  Tell no one about The Grum’s Ledger.  Oriana loved how Olive trusted her.  Most grown-ups don’t know how to trust children.” (45).

Amanda’s husband died suddenly, and she took his death very hard; Oriana was her only solace.  Harry, on the other hand, lost his beloved wife, Beth, to a horrendous collapse of a construction site.  Harry is confused and has no notion of what his life will be like.

Jon continues, “One year had passed, four gray, indistinguishable seasons, and Harry had missed not a single day of work, because what was he going to do at home?  Home: the place where he ate peanut butter on stale crackers and fell asleep in the wingback chair beside the fireplace that still contained the half-charred log Beth had tossed onto the grate the night before she was killed.  Harry would lurch awake, rise stiffly, shower or not shower and drive to work before dawn. // Really, was there a better way to punish himself?  He would work for the Forest Service until he was sixty-five.  No, the way the world was going they’d keep raising the age of retirement—he’d work until he was seventy, eight, ninety.  Perfect.  Decade upon decade, clacking away on his keyboard until his heart sputtered out, his corpse sitting there for years, no one noticing the gnarled finger frozen above the delete key (56).

Harry wants to give it all away until two things happen: he meets Amanda and Oriana, who has a copy of The Grum’s Ledger.  The initial parts of the story are interesting, but I found a large part of the story was simply too long.  Jon Cohen has a story to tell, and Harry’s Trees is a good effort.  4 Stars.