Book Review//The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair

The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair is the story of growth and change within a family and within a world. It takes place in the early years of the last century, up to and including the first years of World War I. Frances and Anthony Harrison have three sons and one daughter and Frances knows from the beginning that things never stay the same.

For the awful thing about your children was that they were always dying. Yes, dying. The baby Nicky was dead. The child Dorothy was dead and in her place was a strange big girl. The child Michael was dead and in his place was a strange big boy. And Frances mourned over the passing of each age. You could no more bring back that unique loveliness of two years old, of five years old, of seven, than you could bring back the dead. Even John-John was not a baby any more, he spoke another language and had other feelings; he had no particular affection for his mother's knee. Frances knew that all this dying was to give place to a more wonderful and a stronger life. But it was not the same life; and she wanted to have all their lives about her, enduring, going on, at the same time. She did not yet know that the mother of babies and the mother of boys and girls must die if the mother of men and women is to be born. 

The Tree of Heaven follows the children as they grow and encounter their own particular "vortex".  Sinclair uses that term regularly throughout her novel in regard to being pulled into attitudes and ways that can seem to take away your own identity. Notice how Dorothy, the daughter, feels about the suffragette movement.

For Dorothy was afraid of the Feminist Vortex, as her brother Michael had been afraid of the little vortex of school. She was afraid of the herded women. She disliked the excited faces, and the high voices skirling their battle-cries, and the silly business of committees, and the platform slang. She was sick and shy before the tremor and the surge of collective feeling; swaying and heaving and rushing forward of the many as one. She would not be carried away by it; she would keep the clearness and the hardness of her soul. It was her soul they wanted, these women of the Union, the Blathwaites, and the Palmerson-Swetes, and Rosalind, and the Blackadder girl and the Gilchrist woman; they ran out after her like a hungry pack yelping for her soul; and she was not going to throw it to them. She would fight for freedom, but not in their way and not at their bidding.  

 The book culminates in the early years of WWI. Nicky, the second son, enters the war with what is pictured as enthusiasm and joy. In a letter to his wife he describes how war feels and he says:

...when you're up first out of the trench and stand alone on the parapet, it's absolute happiness. And the charge is-well, it's simply heaven. It's as if you'd never really lived till then; I certainly hadn't, not up to the top-notch, barring those three days we had together.

Michael, the oldest son, does not want to join up. He feels the war is a "vortex" he does not want to be part of.

From his very first encounters with the collective soul and its emotions they had seemed to Michael as dangerous as they were loathsome. Collective emotion might be on the side of the archangels or on the side of devils and swine; its mass was what made it dangerous, a thing that challenged the resistance of the private soul. But in his worst dreams of what it could do to him Michael had never imagined anything more appalling than the collective patriotism of the British and their Allies, this rushing together of the souls of four countries to make one monstrous soul. 

 Michael's family does not understand why he will not fight for his country and they are disappointed in him. The battle between what he feels he should do and what the world tells him he should do takes up much of the end of the book. I struggled with this section. The feeling of patriotic fervor and the happiness Nicky, and eventually Michael, found in fighting for their country is not something I can relate to.

This was an interesting book. It portrayed a time and the feelings of that time very clearly.  I found it interesting that Dorothy's conflict around her support of women's suffrage was pictured so clearly especially since May Sinclair herself was pro-suffrage. While I found the war sections difficult I do know they accurately portrayed the attitudes of the day toward those who were not quick to enlist. After all, women used to hand out white feathers to men who were not in uniform.

The Tree of Heaven was recently reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series. My thanks to them for the review copy.

Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book is writing the afterwords for the British Library Women Writers series if you need an added inducement to buy them.


  1. This one sounds like a must read for me. I so understand that feeling of mourning for the past as children grow up. Strangely I particularly enjoyed their teenage years, but the social history aspect of this book would appeal to me too.

    1. That paragraph really resonated with me. I think you might like it. It wasn't quite what I had expected but I did enjoy it.