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Una Mannion’s ‘A Crooked Tree’ is a twisted summer adventure

By Conner Tighe Set in the 1980s, this coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Libby Gallagher. Mannion captures how one action can have negative repercussions involving sexual harassment and attempted kidnapping. After Libby’s mother, Faye, gets into an intense argument with the youngest daughter, Ellen, she tells her to get out of the car, making her walk home in the dark. According to Origin, a large number of Americans believed as many as a million children were kidnapped in the 80s. By the time the 90s came, child abductions had become more widely speculated about in the media. This is what sets the mood for the overall book: The 320-page novel is shadowed by intense fear and anxiety after Ellen returns home disheveled and shaken up from an incident with a man only referred to as “Barbie man.” Mannion takes readers into a small town located in Pennsylvania where Libby talks about the Manson house nearby. The Gallaghers seem to live in a wooded area with hills and a small town nearby where the siblings hang out off and on. The way Mannion writes the dialogue and describes the whereabouts of the town gives this eerie atmosphere where nothing feels 100 percent safe. Even when Libby is babysitting neighbor Ms. Boucher’s two sons, she can’t help but feel like she’s being watched. There are more moments subtly hinting at sexual harassment involving minors beyond Ellen’s incident. The interesting bit is that Mannion never directly says what’s occurring but we, as the reader, understand. The overall theme of sexual harassment and its mental effects are explored well to the point where we understand the characters better because of their past. There are moments in the novel where Libby recalls memories with past friendships, one incident involving a friend’s father. When Ellen arrives at Ms. Boucher’s while her sister is babysitting, Libby changes to this protective role of Ellen because she understands what may have happened from previous experiences.  Much of the story is in the first-person point of view from Libby’s perspective, where we can follow what she thinks when she approaches people and processes events. Libby seems understandably put off by males in general, which shows how far the ripples from traumatic situations go. When Ellen, Libby, and Beatrice go to a restaurant in the mall, they see Barbie man sitting in the booth behind them. Much of the chapter focuses on Libby’s anxiety and fear by simply seeing the man. Mannion was able to capture genuine fear without using your average killer or monster because we know little about the man, but she created this power he has or had over these girls. Libby seems to accept this past, for she seems more grief-stricken over her father’s death, who died years earlier. Her four other siblings seem unbothered by their father’s death, or at least not to the extreme of Libby. She seems to resent her mother and talks about her parents’ divorce and how her Irish immigrant father left for New York to find employment before his death.    Memories of her father come in and out throughout the novel, explaining current events. One memory particularly focuses on a hidden hideout where Libby and her friend Sage would meet known as “The Kingdom,” marked by a crooked tree. Their father commonly compared Irish culture to American culture, saying how Americans had no appreciation for nature. Her father said the crooked tree was twisted on purpose by the Native Americans who lived in the land previously. Libby recognized where “The Kingdom” was by spotting the crooked tree. Libby seems to latch onto dysfunctional aspects of her life because she’s coping, and the tree symbolizes her naivety and the youth she’s holding onto. The overall childlike thought process in the book was carried through excellently. The Gallagher family is dysfunctional, to say the least, as the children seem to care for themselves as Faye is gone frequently, coming home to a mess of events. However, the character development focusing mainly on the children in the novel appeals to younger audiences as it’s written from a youth perspective. The relationship between the siblings is explored the most in this novel with sibling rivalry and Thomas, the only boy, trying to live up to his father’s legacy.  The romance breaks up the slow pacing at times with Wilson McVay’s introduction, a delinquent with a rough reputation, and Jack Griffith, with a classic “lover boy” appeal. Although Libby is resistant to McVay throughout much of the novel, the chemistry is undeniable, but it is disappointing to see it was only halfway explored, even toward the ending. However, there’s no male role model in the book until McVay comes into the picture, so it only made sense for him to stick around especially since he is a little twisted himself. The characters carry this twisted summer story as it’s revealed early on that not one character is without secrets.  Faye sneaks off to see Bill, a man she has begun seeing since her husband’s death, which Libby resents. Ms. Boucher is revealed to be having an affair with a married man, and McVay takes matters into his own hands when he learns of Ellen’s incident. The climax comes when Faye leaves to take Libby’s sister Beatrice to a summer camp in North Carolina, leaving the siblings alone. Barbie man returns, looking for McVay and seeking revenge after being beaten by him. Libby, believing the man to be coming for Ellen, goes ballistic when she can’t find her sister while at a Fourth of July celebration.  Some situations aren’t fully explained in the novel, like McVay’s abusive household, and Libby makes assumptions about him living a criminal lifestyle. Although when shocking events came in the novel, because of the lack of background—like with Ms. Boucher—they didn’t hit me as hard. By the end of the book, some aspects of the characters are left a mystery, which can be interesting if used correctly. However, here it’s a bit annoying.

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