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Tree Fever

by Karen Hood-Caddy

In her debut novel, Tree Fever, Ontario writer Karen Hood-Caddy dramatizes the activism and commitment to nature that defines the Canadian environmental movement.

The novel is set in Muskoka, Ontario, where Hood-Caddy, a social worker who has directed workshops in meditation, spent her childhood summers. Here, Jessie Dearborn James, a widowed psychotherapist (and as her name portends, soon-to-be outlaw) suddenly finds herself at the centre of a battle to save a stand of old evergreens. Jessie views the trees as friends who, over the years, have provided her with comfort, joy, and even wisdom. When she sees men with chainsaws preparing to cut them down, she chains herself to a tree trunk. This is the first time Jessie has opted for action over talk and it marks a watershed moment. From this point forward, she places greater trust in her emotions and relies less upon her intellect.

At any rate, intellect has not been serving Jessie particularly well. It hasn’t helped her cope with her particular version of the mid-life crisis: her discouragement over wrinkling features, guilt about failing to prepare her daughter Robyn for the harsher facts of life, and her fears about dying. Fortunately, Jessie’s tree campaign allows her to work through these dilemmas.

Hood-Caddy marvelously parallels the plight of the mature trees with society’s treatment of its older citizens. But in her effort to dismantle preconceptions about old age, Hood-Caddy portrays the “guerilla grannies” who join Jessie’s cause as, perhaps, a little too energetic. She too often employs characters as the personifications of particular ideas. For instance, Jessie’s best friend Madge is the tacky, middle-aged woman desperate to prove herself still attractive. And it is not surprising that Boyd, the wealthy, swaggering philanderer, turns out to be the villain responsible for the imminent demise of the trees. Finally, Hood-Caddy’s delineation of Harley, the native man who reawakens Jessie’s desire, comes dangerously close to racial stereotypes regarding the sexuality of dark-skinned men.

In Jessie, however, Hood-Caddy creates a satisfying, utterly believable character whose personal trials recall our own. At one point Jessie agrees to address a community meeting, but she struggles over the content of her speech. Says Jessie, to herself, “The subject was too important, my feelings too strong.”

Like her heroine, Hood-Caddy has taken on the challenge of creating literature out of an issue of deep personal significance – and the result is a rare and engaging trek across the landscape of one woman’s mind and heart.