The first of several voices we hear when delving into the haunting, isolated world of Mining Hollow and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven is that of Andrew Wallen. At 30, he is living with his mother, Ruth, while trying to reconcile the fundamentalist religion of his upbringing with his sinful desires, find meaning, and understand love. By going back to 1926 and then journeying forward through Ruths own childhood with her ferocious, hard-drinking preacher of a father, Tobias; her unlikely marriage to would-be musician Earl Wallen; and her unfulfilled desire to leave Mining Hollow behind, Karen Salyer McElmurray gradually reveals the path that led inexorably to the crossroads Andrew now faces. The circular, deeply psychological, and impressionistic narrations take us inside the minds of Earl, Ruth, and Andrew, showing the separateness in which they live, their fundamental inability to understand one another, and their desperate attempts to find meaningful connections in their lives.
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About the tree-of-heaven, or ailanthus, an invasive, fast-growing deciduous tree first brought to the U.S. from China in the 18th century, from the Plant Conservation Alliances Alien Plant Working Group (The tree in Betty Smiths A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also an ailanthus.)