Book Review: “The Cicada Tree” by Robert Gwaltney

The Cicada Tree by Robert Gwaltney


Robert Gwaltney’s The Cicada Tree takes place in mid-century, rural South Georgia. A place where racial segregation and social class division serve as a background to a fascinating story about a local wealthy family and the secrets they harbor. And I’m not talking about typical “skeletons in the closet” secrets that all families have, especially in the South. I’m talking about secrets that, if told, could alter lives, towns, perhaps even the course of history. 

The story begins with two young girls, one White and one Black–both third-graders and best friends, collecting “bushels” of cicada husks in their back yard. Analise is the precocious daughter of Claxton, the town drunk, and Grace Newell, a woman “gifted” with forbidden talents. Etta Mae is an orphaned girl living with her grandmother, Miss Wessie, who is the live-in made for the Claxtons. Both girls have extraordinary natural talents for music. Analise, a seeming magnet for trouble, also has a flair for mischief with level-headed and sweet Etta Mae serving as her conscious. 

The 13-year, generational cicadas are a constant presence and din throughout the story. A biblical pestilence that seems to presage a greater storm on the horizon. One that eventually will break over the town of Providence, Georgia, laying bare the troubled secrets of the Mayfield family. 

“They done come back you know?” He cupped his hand to his disfigured ear. “Can’t you hear them? Them ole locusts…they got secrets they keep. Things they know and keep buried deep down in the ground with them–until they have the mind to come back. To sing out what they know…mind your secrets,” Halbert said. “Keep ’em close.”

The Mayfields, Kingston and Cordelia, are wealthy socialites and owners of the Mayfield Pickle Company, the only major employer in town. Along with their daughter, Marlissa—also a third-grader, the family shares a mysterious attractiveness known as that “Mayfield shine.” A bizarre charm and allure that goes far beyond their impeccable beauty. They also share a troubled past—one filled with secrets, tragedy, and perhaps even ghosts. After all, what would a good Southern Gothic novel be without a maybe-ghost that represents past sins?

After a fire burns down the private school where the local rich kids are isolated away from the rural working-class kids, Marlissa Mayfield begins attending the public (White) school where she immediately becomes the most popular kid and begins a complicated and dangerous friendship with Analise. A mind-bending relationship that threatens to pull apart everything Analise holds dear. 

Gwaltney’s descriptions of rural life in the segregated South are cinematic in both texture and girth. His use of dialogue, with only a smattering of vernacular—just enough to feel authentic, is a real treat to read. Equally impressive is his ability to realistically drive the first-person point of view of an eleven-year-old girl from the 1950s. One who is challenged both by the stifling social norms of her time and the magical realism that invades her world. 

Pick up a copy of The Cicada Tree at your favorite independent bookstore or the usual on-line sellers. Clicking on the cover image below will take you to the Amazon site. 

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