Mary Swan

The Boys in the Trees

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The Boys in the Trees Summary

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Set in the late 1800s, and spanning England and Canada, Mary Swan’s novel The Boys in the Trees is about a town reeling from a horrendous crime. It follows many narrators in a small town in the Canadian countryside, who struggle to understand the acts of one man, William Heath, after he shoots his wife and two daughters in cold blood one afternoon in their family home. Tracing the Heaths’ history, the story considers the lasting impact of this kind of tragedy on a community.

Though the story is told in snippets through the points of view of various family friends, townspeople, and even objects, the narrative is quite straightforward. In the prologue, Swan writes about a boy who escapes the beatings of his violent father by climbing a tree. In the tree, the boy waits out his father’s rage by carving his name into the trunk. While he is up there, he promises himself he won’t be the same kind of man as his father. He desires a life far away from his home, where people will know his name and all will be well in the world. This boy is the main character, William Heath.

William grows up to marry Naomi, a young woman who knows almost nothing about him when they get married in Liverpool in the middle of the 19th century. Naomi wants to escape her father’s house, and William seems reliable and comfortable. He is employed as a bookkeeper, and the couple lives a comfortable life with their three children, Sadie, Tom, and Willie. Sadly, all three children contract and die from diphtheria. Left alone again, William convinces Naomi to move from their home in Liverpool, England to Canada, where they can start over.

In Canada, Naomi and William settle in a remote village in the countryside. Again, William takes on a job as a bookkeeper. They have two more children, both daughters, Lily and Rachel. Rachel is sturdy and dependable, while Lily is sick with a mysterious illness. Lily also has a tendency to speak to spirits. She claims to hear the voices of her departed siblings, which startles her parents. Despite Lily’s sickness, however, the family lives a comfortable life.

The Heaths’ comfort comes to an end when one of the richest men in town accuses William of embezzlement, threatening to sue him. William has been accused of this before, and it appears to many people in town he won’t be found innocent of this crime. William picks his two daughters up from school that day, brings them home, and shoots Rachel, Lily, and Naomi in cold blood. They are found soon after, and William Heath is thrown in jail.

In the aftermath of the killing, a number of townspeople begin to investigate and reflect on William’s motives, as well as the life of the family before they arrived in Canada. Lily’s doctor, who was convinced he would one day cure the girl, is particularly devastated, as well as Lily and Rachel’s teacher, Ms. Alice. Even the house speaks about the family and the pain that went on inside its walls.

Ultimately, William Heath is convicted of triple murder and hanged in the town square. Men from all over climb the trees to watch Heath hang, just as William Heath once climbed trees as a boy to escape violence he could not control.

Mary Swan is a Canadian novelist and short-story writer. The Boy in the Trees is her first novel, though she published a collection of short stories, The Deep, in 2002. The Boy in the Trees, inspired by a newspaper clipping, was short-listed for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Swan also won the O. Henry Prize for her short story, The Deep. A trained librarian, she lives in Guelph, Ontario.