“I done a lot of things I shouldn’t have. You don’t know the half of it. But let me tell you something. I did not do stupid shit with stupid people that resulted in even more stupider shit that needed help cleaning up after. You got that” (99)? This is all the information thirty four-year old James Hart is willing to reveal about himself to his younger brother, Ezra, known as Rabbit in Steph Post‘s new novel, A Tree Born Crooked, forthcoming September 30 and available for preorder from Pandamoon Publishing. A flight school dropout who cut himself off from his family for fifteen years, James returns to his family’s rural home in Alachua County, Florida when he receives a summons by postcard announcing his father’s death too late to attend the funeral. Instead of leaving the place that haunts and repels him, James remains to settle his father’s estate and walks into a snare meant for his petty-criminal brother. Author Steph Post has created a vivid literary thriller where her characters stride among the groves, backroads, and bars of north-central Florida like weary Titians, flicking their burning cigarettes into the sand and grit, wiping away whiskey with the backs of their hands.
A Tree Born Crooked is a thriller with an element of mystery as well as a southern novel of grit. There are no country clubs or debutantes in Crystal Springs, no longing for an idyll pastoral past slipping out of reach. The people in Crystal Springs live rough and close to the bone, and while James hides away and runs, he is no different in this respect than those he left behind. Located somewhere along the route between Lake City and Gainesville but within driving distance of the Santa Fe River in Fanning Springs, the rural town is depressed and virtually unchanged in decades. “It was a town that people were born in, knowing already that they were going to die in it” (17-18). Post says:
“[T]he characters always come first. I really wanted to write about these seemingly “white trash” characters in a literary style. I wanted to tell a story that was at once tragic and beautiful, just as the characters are. Once I had James, Rabbit, Marlena and Birdie Mae- James’ mother- figured out, I let the story evolve from there.” (Heather Jacobs Interview)
The dramatic arc emerges out of character and how each character responds to the challenges in the race of vengeance against rural organized crime.
The Hart family traces their roots in the area to the 19th century and started out as phosphate miners and now own The Citrus Shop, a tourist stop, run by the abrasive Hart matriarch, Birdie-Mae. Rabbit remained to help his parents with the shop. He enjoyed small-town celebrity as the high school quarter back but by the time the readers meet him fifteen years later, he’s scamming copper wire for oxycodone and selling it to local strippers with his ex-con cousin Delmore. After James meets the alluring Marlena, the daughter of a local bar owner and a college graduate in art history, he and Marlena become caught up in the deadly consequences of one of Rabbit’s criminal deals gone horribly wrong. During their trek across Florida and the Gulf Coast, James and Marlena open up to one another, in ways that are both unavoidably painful and violent but also redemptive. James tells Marlena about a recurrent dream he has had since childhood: “I’m a tree…I’ve been struck by lightning and I’m splitting right down the middle. I know you seen trees hit like that. But I don’t catch on fire, and I don’t die. I’m just broken. And I know that I’m gonna keep on growing, but only crooked” (154-55). In response, Marlena reveals her Aunt’s deathbed words to her,
“She looked right at me and said, a tree born crooked never could grow straight…Now, what I think what she said to me was a blessing, not a curse. We can’t escape who we are, be that twisted or crooked or broken or even struck by lightning. We can’t change ourselves. We can’t expect that one day we’re suddenly going to grow straight. The important thing is just what you said, that you keep on growing. You keep living, and you keep breathing, even when it feels like your lungs are going to collapse and your heart is only an empty shell, you still keep on breathing. (156)
Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked displays resilience in her ability to spool tension and suspense and finesse in crafting memorable, vibrant characters as an engrossing drama unfolds. I raced through the first reading in one sitting to learn the outcome. I look forward to reading more of her work. Treat yourself to this raw and sublime ride.
Steph Post is a tried and true Florida native. Not palm-tree-laden-fruity-drink-tropical-shirt-and-sandals South Florida, but backwoods-on-a-creek-deer-flies-and-alligator-ridden North Florida. Her adventurous childhood growing up in just such a precarious landscape has led to a lifetime of dauntless creativity and the Scrappy-Dappy-Do mentality that she can achieve just about anything if she sets her mind to it.
This somewhat reckless outlook has led to a Bachelor’s degree in English from Davidson College, numerous waitressing and bartending gigs, a penchant for writing long academic papers on punk rock and Alice in Wonderland, a Master’s degree in Graduate Liberal Studies from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the acquisition of six slightly deranged mutts and an extremely tolerant husband, two novels, a house in St. Petersburg, Florida and a fulfilling job as a high school teacher at a performing arts school in Tampa.
Spice up this timeline with the knowledge that she has also been a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell creative writing scholarship, winner of the Vereen Bell award for short fiction, semi-finalist for the Big Moose prize for fiction, loves coffee, is obsessed with the television show Justified and enjoys reading classic literature when she’s not too busy being a badass, and you should have a pretty good picture of who you’re dealing with here. Like the characters she writes about, Steph Post is vulnerable and volatile, fearless and fierce. She hopes you enjoy her work.
Post, Steph. Interview by Heather Jacobs. http://www.hmjacobs.com/blog/catching-up-with-author-steph-post, 19 July 2014. Accessed Sat. 6 Sept. 2014.