Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jr.
In the South Bronx, Bobby, a thirteen-year-old Black, and Maria, his Hispanic girlfriend, are attacked and savagely beaten. Bobby is taken in by Moishe (a.k.a. Werner Schultz), a concentration camp survivor, and nursed back to health. Bobby plots his revenge while Moishe tries to teach him that hate will destroy him as well as his victims.
The use of run-on sentences with little punctuation may require some adjustment at the beginning. It does not impede the reader’s understanding, but reading it reminded me of reading a student’s initial attempts with the interior monologue style before he/she is completely comfortable with it.
Bobby has a limited vocabulary, but that is not surprising in a young teen; the problem is the author’s limited vocabulary indicated in the exposition. For example, emotions are always “flowing”: “a sense of gratitude flowing through him”; “feeling the joy flowing through him”; “affection flowing between them”; “happiness flowing through mind and body”; “a sense of being lost flowing from him”; “hatred flowing through and from him”; “a sense of strength and softness flowing through him and around him”; “love and gratitude flowing through him”; “a sense of freedom from everything flowing through him”; “a warmth flowing through him”; “the comfort and peace gently flowing through him”; “love, compassion and empathy flowing from him.” And then there are the tears that are flowing so often!
Tiresome repetition is found in other descriptions as well. For instance, there are 357 references to eyes, and at least 120 of those mention eyes either opening or closing or blinking. One is to believe that the relationship between Bobby and Moishe gradually becomes closer, but their relationship is often reduced to their laughing together and eating ice cream together. Several dozen times it is mentioned that Moishe and Bobby start laughing uncontrollably. And how many times must the reader be told that the two enjoy chocolate sauce with their ice cream?
There is a definite lack of realism. Moishe lives in a subterranean apartment, which made me think of the late 1980’s television show Beauty and the Beast, except that Moishe’s sanctuary has all the amenities. Why a concentration camp survivor would choose to live in such an environment is never explained. And Moishe has no friends? Not once in the months Bobby spends with him does Moishe interact with anyone other than Bobby. He seems to have limitless funds even though his only job is repairing appliances. Why does an old man have a rowing machine that he himself never uses?
The theme of the book, that hatred destroys those who hate, is not one which people will find objectionable. What I did find objectionable is the development of this theme. The pace of the book is painfully slow. Actions are repeated over and over again: each day is spent with Bobby planning his revenge and working out to get fit; Moishe preparing food and the two talking, Moishe revealing something about his concentration camp experiences; Bobby taking a tour of his old neighbourhood while Moishe worries until he returns; the two sharing ice cream with chocolate sauce before going to bed. All this leads to a predictable ending.
This was a disappointing read. Except for the opening, it lacks a plot; because of the limited diction, it makes for a tiresome read; it lacks realism when it could offer gritty details about life in the South Bronx; several times it lapses into melodrama. Give me West Side Story which addresses some of the same issues more effectively.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.