“The Cicada Tree,” by Robert Gwaltney

Hordes of nymphs clawed their way free from the deep down, all of them desperate for a place to molt. To every trunk, shrub, and post they clung, hail battered branches drooping from the weight. They clicked and skittered up the house, gambling on bowing shards of paint. No other place to claim, the cicadas relented, glittering beneath the mottled light of a half-woke moon, accumulating quick and dangerous as fast falling snow.

Robert Gwaltney
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I finally met Robert Gwaltney at a local author’s book signing, but we’d become virtual friends during this never-ending pandemic. Robert is a writer and book advocate like me, so it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. Gwaltney is also the editor for Blue Mountain Review and is highly active in the literary scene promoting authors, helping them get their names out there—something most authors do not enjoy doing themselves. I look forward to seeing the latest book he’s reading as he sets up the scene on his social media pages as one would imagine a display window would appear in the good old days when Rich’s Department Store was thriving in Atlanta. Now he has authored a stunning novel, The Cicada Tree, and though it’s his debut novel it feels more the work of an old soul author.

Dark secrets lurk beneath the town of Providence, secrets of obsessions and betrayal, secrets that must be unearthed. Donaldbain, in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, said, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er the blood, the nearer the bloody.” The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, has its share of Shakespearean betrayals, some perceived, some real, but crueler still for the one who draws the knife, or lights the fire is family in this novel. Analeise Newall, the young protagonist, has set her mind on exposing those secrets—her family and town be damned. Set in segregated 1950’s Georgia, it requires something biblical to unearth these secrets, something like a swarm of cicadas.

Analeise isn’t the easiest protagonist to champion. She’s self-centered, jealous, impetuous, conniving; essentially, she’s the epitome of a girl entering her teenaged years. She’s diametrically the opposite of sweet, naïve, orphaned, Etta Mae. Grace Newall, Analeise’s mother, and Miss Wessie, Etta Mae’s Granny, scrape by as single mothers raising their two girls in the same house and Analiese and Etta Mae act more like sisters. Though the women in the household don’t share the same skin color and outside the home, Miss Wessie and Etta Mae aren’t treated equally, inside the home the relationship is more modern. One thing these two girls do share in common is an innate gift for music; Analeise can play the piano by ear and Etta Mae has an operatic voice. Neither have the formal training the small-town aristocrats—the Mayfields—have. Yet, the Mayfields have more than just talent, money, and stature; they possess the power of enchantment. Reminiscent of the Latin magical realists, the speculative elements in The Cicada Tree are simply part of the everyday and the characters take these unusual abilities and events in stride. Grace, a master seamstress, can read fortunes in her stitching. Her gift isn’t overly explained, other than she received the gift of second sight after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Analiese and Etta Mae’s “power” is untapped, but that all changes when Analeise begins piano lessons and Etta Mae starts voice lessons. It’s enlightening reading about characters whose value is based on talent and artistic expression rather than brute strength or an improbable superpower.

As antagonists, Marlissa Mayfield and her mother, Cordelia Mayfield, meet the mark. You can’t help but admire Cordelia’s impeccable taste, and Gwaltney’s description of the Mayfield’s home, Mistletoe, is captivating. Cordelia has instilled her style into Marlissa, along with wrath, pride, envy—basically, the seven deadly sins. Marlissa has learned from the best, her mother, and is always three steps ahead of Analiese. Bewitched, Analiese walks into Marlissa’s spiderweb again and again. Marlissa, also a talented pianist, isn’t used to competition; she refuses to share the limelight with Analiese. The town’s talent show becomes a battle royale. On the surface, it may appear this is a novel about good versus evil, rich versus poor, but it isn’t as black and white as that because there are flaws on both sides. What’s compelling is watching “good” characters make “bad” decisions. Gwaltney’s characters are multidimensional. His plots and subplots are compelling, pushing the narrative towards an epic conclusion.

In Greek mythology, cicadas were once believed to be humans who so inspired by song, sang all day and night forgetting to eat or drink and eventually dying. The Muses, moved by their dedication to music, turned their spirits into cicadas. The Cicada Tree pays homage to the muse and the love of art, for sure, but symbolically cicadas have deep roots across cultures, religion, and art. This idea that an ugly history has seeped into the earth and now the characters are living above a cursed land, haunted by a past, is a common theme in Southern Gothic literature and is present in Gwaltney’s novel. But cicadas, along with their darker representations, can also bring hope. With all the biblical references in The Cicada Tree, the theme of resurrection is the most predominant, especially at the end. It’s 1956 in the deep South where churches and schools are segregated. Through the power of music, a white and black girl, together, expose not only the sordid past of one powerful family, but the town’s, and society’s as well.

The language in The Cicada Tree is ornate and lush, and reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote. In a largely visual society, it’s refreshing to read a novel where all the senses are explored. Oftentimes, authors neglect these opportunities, leaving it to the poets. Gwaltney’s language is rich in metaphor and simile; the poetic elements are balanced and appropriate, always reminding the reader we are in the South: “Another shower of applause rose up, the sound of sizzling bacon grease,” and, “There was no use in trying to break free, her grip tight as a canning jar lid.” As both protagonist and antagonist are musical rivals, it makes sense that the narrative includes music and loads of sound imagery. Cicadas make their own special music. There are multiple allusions to song titles as well. The Cicada Tree is so rich in sound imagery, you feel as if there’s a symphony around you: “I imagined Miss Wessie’s boom boom hips as I listened to the crinkle of the grocery bags. I hummed the sound of her walk to myself. It calmed me—helped me think through the fear. Boom Boom. Crinkle,” or, “A cluster of lightening bugs flashed in quick succession. I imagined the quick firing of their lights to sound like the ping of quarter notes. A clumsy “Chopsticks” playing in the night.” What is uniquely Gwaltney, is how he merges the senses together, layering his imagery: “Still, I played, hungry for what might come next. For the first time, I taste my own music, swallowing down the sweet peony-flavored notes, the rapid accumulation of saliva clotting and forming a knot in my throat.” Allusions to art, literature, poetry, and music are fitting and add a richer element to the story. These allusions function as stories within stories if the reader chooses to go down that rabbit hole.

I wonder what shelf in the bookstore The Cicada Tree will settle on. It’s definitively Southern Gothic, but Southern Gothic writers tend to walk the line between speculative, horror, literary, magical realism, and popular fiction. And as such, Gwaltney’s genre-bending novel will appeal to a multitude of readers. The speculative elements build tension but also suggest something deeper at hand with the cicadas working as an extended metaphor. Put The Cicada Tree on your 2022 Must Read List. And if Gwaltney’s debut novel is any indication of what’s to come, we’ll be fortunate to be reading his works for years.

Come celebrate The Cicada Tree’s book publication and meet the author, Robert Gwaltney, at his book launch on February 26, 2022, from 7PM – 9 PM at the Easter Seals Office located at 815 Park North Blvd, Clarkston, GA 30021-1904. Click here to RSVP: BOOK LAUNCH PARTY: THE CICADA TREE

WHERE TO PURCHASE: Get your copy of The Cicada Tree and support independent bookstores (like one of my favorites) by ordering online or visiting FoxTale Book Shoppe.

Headshot by Robert Kim

Robert Gwaltney, an author of Southern fiction, resides in Atlanta Georgia, where he is an active member of the local literary community and serves as Fiction Editor for The Blue Mountain Review. The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, is his debut novel. To learn more about Robert Gwaltney, visit his website: robertlgwaltney.com

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