The Boys in the Trees: A Novel by Mary SwanThe Boys in the Trees: A Novel by Mary Swan

The Boys in the Trees: A Novel

byMary Swan

Paperback | January 22, 2008

Pricing and Purchase Info


Earn 78 plum® points

Out of stock online

Available in stores


“This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty.’”—Alice Munro

Newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who has cared for one daughter, encouraging her trust, examines the finer details of his brief interactions with William, searching for clues that might penetrate the mystery of his motivation. Meanwhile the other daughter’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.

In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the volatile collisions between our best intentions—how a passing stranger can leave an indelible mark on our lives even as the people we know most intimately become alienated by tides of self-preservation and regret. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

Mary Swan is the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction and is the author of the collection The Deep and Other Stories (Random House). Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary magazines, including The Malahat Review, the Ontario Review, and Best Canadian Stories, as well as American publications such as Harper's...
Title:The Boys in the Trees: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 8.02 × 5.23 × 0.66 inPublished:January 22, 2008Publisher:Henry Holt and Co.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0805086706

ISBN - 13:9780805086706

Look for similar items by category:


Rated 4 out of 5 by from Effects of Murder Ripple Through Small Town and the Reader. What an amazing book. Very deserving of the Scotiabank Giller nod. The way the book flows together allows the reader to follow along through three generations without getting lost. Swan tells how the effects of a brutal murder ripples through a small Canadian town and subtly changes their lives forever. This novel left me with a lot of questions about the actual murderous act itself, which was the author's intent not to delve too deep into it. A thought provoking story, I found myself identifying with the characters in my thirst to find out "why". However, like the real-life story this was based on, the answers will never be forthcoming.
Date published: 2009-02-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Study in Vapidity... "The Boys in the Trees" tells the story of an English emigrant family working through the hardships of trying to make a new life in Canada amidst the toils of their present situation and the torture of a past that continues to haunt them. They settle into a new life in small-town Ontario and just when things are looking up, everyone in the family is found murdered except for the father. What follows is a study in the townspeople's reaction to this massacre and how this exploration uncovers a shadow of darkness that seems to lurk in each character, and by extension, in all of us. Though well-written, this is ultimately a forgettable novel. I won't argue that Swan is a poor writer. The prose is, at times, overwhelming in its restrained expressions and subtle articulations. I would even say there are moments in her writing that are truly powerful. Unfortunately, the plot never really develops or takes any kind of shape. In fact, the plot seems abandoned altogether in favour of seemingly random transitions from one character's thoughts to another. This might not be a problem except that Swan doesn't give us any reason to care about any of these characters. All we get is one stream-of-consciousness after another, revealing a little bit more information than we knew before, but not generating any lasting interest or suspenseful interaction for the reader. Some have even complained that they don't see the connections between these streams, and it may be a fair criticism. I happen to think the connections are there if you look close enough. The problem for me is that I don't find them remotely interesting or meaningful. There is simply nothing to get excited about; no lofty ideals propounded or lessons to be learned. To close this book is to be relieved and yet unsatisfied; for you are glad to be finished, but frustrated that you ever started in the first place. A reader would do much better to read Alistair McLeod's "No Great Mischief," a novel similar in theme, but superior in execution.
Date published: 2009-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Memory and loss There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to instantly dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as “Canadian gothic.” Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization. The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete. The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and equally determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point for another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice. After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada – first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Mary Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family. Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them. One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton’s life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age. Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women. These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people to which it belongs. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered. This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented). I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.
Date published: 2008-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant! Mary Swan is an amazing writer. I'm in awe.
Date published: 2008-05-09

Read from the Book

ExcerptAnd then he was running through the long grass, wiping at the blood that made it hard to see but not slowing, still running. The roaring fell away behind and he knew that meant his father would turn on one of the others, that his mother would step into the worst of it, but he didn’t care; at that moment he didn’t even care. Still running when he reached the edge of the wood, dodging the whips from the spindly first trees, leaping and tripping over fallen, rotting trunks, running and running toward the dark heart of it. Not even slowing, not thinking when he saw the low, curved branch, jumped and pulled with his thin arms, climbed like an animal, bare toes gripping, until he was up where everything swayed and whispered, green leaves all around.He wiped at his face again and felt the way his eye was swelling shut, tried to quiet his gasping breath. He didn’t know what had brought the sudden kick, the fist to the head, but it wasn’t worth wondering about; there was rarely a reason that anyone would recognize. He would have to go back, he knew that, but knew too that if he waited long enough his father would have worn himself out with the thick leather strap, the leg of the broken chair. Would have collapsed onto the bed like one of those mossy, fallen trees, battered knuckles trailing over the side.His shirt was so thin it was like nothing at all and the rough bark scratched at his back where he leaned. He was well below the top of the tree but he could still see the whole world, see the long waving grass that had closed behind his escape, the green furred higher fields, the tilting cottage with a needle-thin spire of smoke rising. He could see the rutted track, curving away to the village, another clump of trees and the slate roof and highest windows of Bray Manor. When he turned his head a little there was a smudge of dark blue that he thought might be the sea, days away, and beyond that he didn’t know, only that it would have to be someplace better.Somehow after that first time he could easily find his way to the same tree, as if it was drawing him in, pulling him toward it and up and into the center of the green world. He knew there were creatures, spirits in the trees, but he wasn’t afraid. Knew that if they had marked him out there was nothing he could do but believe it was not to do harm. He stole away when he could, often leaving things undone, and the way he climbed became like a well-worn path, one foot here, both there, the gouges where his toes fit, the bole under his clenched fingers. Once, from his perch, he saw his mother stepping out of the dark cottage doorway; that’s who it had to be, although he was too far away to make out more than the faded shape of her. A few chickens came skittering, as they did when they heard the swish of her black skirts, but maybe he imagined that; from where he was the chickens would have been no more than shivers in the air. There or not there, his mother’s hands must have been empty and she raised them and clasped them behind her head, tilted it back, and wedged in the vee of branches he did the same. There was a rare ray of sunlight that he supposed was warming her face and he tried to imagine how that felt, but the sun didn’t reach him in the green heart of the wood, no way he could put himself in her place.After a moment, no more, his mother turned back inside, and he picked up the knife from the spot where he’d balanced it, went back to his work. The idea to carve his name had come from somewhere, maybe the look of certain gouges in the bark, and he had slipped his father’s knife from the jacket pocket, holding his breath. The babies watched him with their old eyes, but even if they could speak, he didn’t think they would. There should have been time; he knew the sun would be high before his father snorted himself awake. But the tree was ancient, the wood like rock, like iron, and the tip of the knife snapped off, fell sparkling down through the leaves. He knew that the beating for a broken knife would be worse than for one that was missing, so he hid it in a hole he scooped out at the base of the tree, climbed like a pirate sometimes, the worn handle clenched between his teeth. He soon gave up the idea of his whole name, and worked instead at the straight lines of his initials. The wood was like iron and it was taking so long, but that was all right. He was still just a slip of a boy, a clout on the ear could send him flying, and he knew that he would have to be bigger, stronger, before he could leave. Thought maybe the time it would take to scrape out the letters would be a good measure. In fact, he was sure of it; it was one of the things he knew, in the same way he knew that he was just waiting here, that it was never meant to be his life.Sometimes he sang while he worked, his voice twig-thin like his mother’s at night, when she whispered about the trees that leaned over the green river. His own tree was so old, the branch so thick, that no sap welled in the wounds he made, but he knew it was there, deep inside. Knew that as surely as he knew that one day he would have money and a steep-roofed house with high windows, a family of his own that he would cherish. He knew that he would find the life he was meant to have, somewhere far from this terrible place, that all would be well, that one day people would know his name. Copyright © 2008 by Mary Swan. All rights reserved.

Editorial Reviews

“This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty.’”—Alice Munro“Intricate, haunting, entrancing, its mystery woven in the texture of the tiny details.”—Tessa Hadley, author of The Master Bedroom“A lovely poignant novel, the movement of the narrative in time and space as natural and intricate as the movement of waves. The stories seem to be telling themselves, yet they are the product of tender and attentive craftsmanship.  . . . After finishing it, I feel as if I am still listening for it. It has the compelling logic of a lingering, powerful dream.”—Hilary Mantel, author of Beyond Black “Beautifully written, the novel transpires in close-up, conveying a sense of intimacy and moving us right into the realm of the sometimes glorious, sometimes ghastly details.  There are scenes you will not soon forget.”—Ann Beattie“[T]he novel is wonderful. The Boys in the Trees reads like a palimpsest, layering significance on significance . . .This is a book that will grow on rereading, and an author who may prove to be a master of the genre.”—The San Francisco Chronicle (2/23/08)“Swan’s prose is tense, rhythmic and emotionally evocative . . . with its forceful observations and willed ambiguities, this challenging and often beautiful book can be as unsettling—and sometimes maddening—as a long look in the mirror.”—The New York Times Book Review