"Jon Cohen gives readers a big-hearted novel about grief, generosity, and the stories that bring people together.
Jon Cohen, with his prior novels The Man in the Window and Max Lakeman and the Beautiful Stranger, has gained a reputation for crafting unusual, deeply empathetic love stories. In his third novel, Harry's Trees, Cohen explores how some surprising circumstances - and one unusual fairy tale - help pull his unforgettable characters out of grief and into a kind of new beginning.
Harry Crane knew he loved two things most of all: his wife Beth, and spending time with trees. So when Beth is killed in a freak accident while Harry - who refuses to quit his soul-sucking Forestry Service desk job unless he receives a financial windfall - buys a lottery ticket, Harry is utterly lost. Months later, when he receives a massive wrongful death settlement, he is, ironically, even more bereft. Now, as a result of Beth's death, Harry has the financial security and freedom he could only dream of before - but at such a devastating cost.
Meanwhile, halfway across Pennsylvania, in the Endless Forest and rolling hills outside Scranton, Amanda Jeffers and her 10 year-old daughter Oriana are also finding their way through unimaginable loss and grief. Amanda's strong, capable husband Dean, a man who spent his life working with his hands and body, died - coincidentally on the very same day as Harry's Beth - machinery accident, but from a silent aneurysm. Oriana - whose vivid imagination has been fed by frequent trips to her small town's crumbling library - hears a description of her father's body looking like a snow angel, and she's become convinced that he transformed into a winged creature, if not an angel then some kind of powerful bird.
When near-tragic circumstances cause Harry and Oriana's paths to cross, Oriana decides that her father's spirit, in the guise of a red-tailed hawk, spared Harry for a reason. She convinces Amanda to let Harry stay in the magnificent tree house that Dean built in the forest surrounding their home and she introduces Harry to The Grum's Ledger, the fairy tale that will soon shape, not only his story, but many others' as well.
The Grum's Ledger is a slim story (it's told in full, complete with illustrations, within the novel), and also a magical one, not only in subject but also in effect. Everyone who reads the story finds a very personal meaning within it, and everyone who acts on whatever moral they perceive finds their own path to fulfillment. This works not only on Harry and Oriana, but also on the town's spinster librarian and Dean's hapless, guilt-stricken best friend. As Oriana reflects near the novel's end, "you had to survive the big things in order to reach the best part of your story."
Harry's Trees is too complicated and nuanced to be reduced to a "happily ever after" kind of resolution - Cohen's portrayal of grief and recovery is at times raw, and the dynamic between Harry and his menacing brother (fittingly named Wolf) is especially dark and in many ways unresolved. Cohen also resists sentimentality, which could easily have subsumed his more subtle characterizations of the fanciful but practical Oriana, the librarian with a racy past, and especially the down-to-earth, eminently capable and pragmatic Amanda. Harry's Trees is the best kind of feel-good novel - one that gives readers glimpses into magic and hope and happy endings but doesn't lose sight of the fact that its characters should feel like real people leading real lives colored by loss and confusion and mortgage payments. Cohen's novel is in many ways about generosity, but it's also generous in its telling, as it allows each character's story to take root and spring to life, building a narrative as rich and interwoven as the forests Harry loves."
BookBrowse (5 stars, Editor's Choice)
"When U.S. Forest Service employee and lifelong lover of trees Harry Crane loses his wife in a freak accident, he also loses himself. A year later, Harry makes his way to a remote forest in the Endless Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania.
There he meets Oriana, a young girl whose father died unexpectedly on the same day as Harry's wife. Since her father's death, Oriana has become a devout believer in fairy tales, and when she meets Harry, she's convinced that he's the one who must complete her story. After he finds a treehouse, fights a wolf, and discovers a very unusual book, Harry begins to believe that Oriana just might be right.
Part fairy tale and, at the same time, heartbreakingly realistic, Cohen's third novel (after The Man in the Window) will entrance readers from page one, and by the end, even skeptics will agree that magic can still be found in the most unlikely places and in the most surprising people if only we're willing to look."
Library Journal (starred review)
"Set in rural Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains, this redemptive tale will speak to the hearts of those who've lost a loved one. Oriana, a young girl whose father died—in the snow, with arms outspread like angel wings—mourns deeply. She becomes lost in a fantasy of her father as a winged creature of the forest behind her house. She devours fairy tales given to her by Olive, the elderly librarian, and plays alone in the woods, sensing her father's presence. When Harry Crane, a 30-something USDA Forestry Service employee, makes an unexpected appearance in Oriana's forest, she's not surprised, for he is surely a sign.
Harry, reeling from the loss of his wife (something he believes is his fault) is in deep despair when he meets Oriana. He discovers a book she'd lost in the woods—The Grum's Ledger, which should be required reading for everyone. The two form a bond, sanctioned by Oriana's mother, Amanda Jeffers, who hopes Harry will lead her daughter back to reality. The twisting, intriguing events that follow are anchored to reality but perceived by Oriana (and Harry) as magical.
Cohen has plotted well and peopled his novel with a series of flawed, perhaps exaggerated characters. From Wolf, Harry's fearsome brother, to Ronnie, whose insecurities lie deep, to the lucky ones who get a visit from the elusive Susquehanna Santa, the characters entertain and irk.
This is a story about grief and the many ways to heal; about redemption; about forgiveness; about letting go; but most of all, about the power of the human spirit to soar above tragedy and reunite with joy. Don't let the term fairy tale scare you away, for, as Cohen says, 'Enchantment is a part of everyday existence.' Oh, and it's also a chuckleworthy story."
"After Harry Crane, a U.S. Forest Service analyst, lost his wife in a freak accident on the streets of Philadelphia, he fled to the woods in northeast Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains to grieve and heal. A quirk of timing leads him to Amanda Jeffers and her precocious daughter, Oriana, who, like Harry, are also grieving; they've lost Dean, husband and father.
After renting a tree house in Amanda's woods, Harry grows close to Oriana, who is desperate to find ways to reconnect with her dad. When the town librarian gives Oriana an ancient fairy tale, complete with an ogre and a mountain of gold, she thinks she has discovered a way to make that possible, but she'll need Harry's help.
Battling a predatory brother named Wolf and a grasping tax collector, Harry and Oriana's quest for comfort and redemption is fraught with the genre's obligatory obstacles. After all, when a young girl asks you to believe in fairy tales, sometimes you just have to obey. In Cohen's capable hands, the unlikely teamwork between an optimistic child and a wary adult makes for a tender tale of first loves and second chances."
Booklist (starred review)