Book Review: Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee

Come back tomorrow for the character interview of Rena and Frankie!

Tyndale House Publishers, September 8, 2020, Pages:400, ISBN:978-1-4964-4607-7

The story begins with the stock market crash of 1929 when Rena Leland is about to celebrate her sixteen birthday. Because her father is a banker who mismanaged his assets, their lifestyle takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

For me, this beginning was slow. The real story gets going when we leap forward seven years as Rena, out of work at a newspaper office, takes a job with the WPA interviewing former slaves. (If you find the beginning slow, stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.) I knew about these slave narratives and have read a few of them. With all the stories and movies out there on slavery and the Civil War, readers might be tempted to think it’s all been done before. However, the author drew me in as Rena is engrossed in hearing the story of Frankie Washington, a woman who said God told her she couldn’t die until she told Rena her story. I was engrossed too. It kept me turning pages as the book is partly told in Frankie’s point of view from the past.

Uncomfortable at times (how can it not be?), readers are taken back to the horrors, the heartbreak, and the incredible endurance of those who lived through it. Frankie’s story takes place in Nashville before and during the Civil War. Frankie and other slaves are held in a contraband camp when the Union Army takes control of the city. She is allowed to work and be paid for washing officer’s clothing. During a battle she cares for injured soldiers. And then she is asked to do the same for the Confederate soldiers, something she struggles against, blaming them for all the pain and suffering she endured as a slave. How she deals with this and what she learns will also teach Rena some incredible lessons.

Rena feels regret for her family having owned slaves in the past, but she thinks all that is in the past. Then she realizes that between her mother objecting to the neighborhood she must visit for the interviews and her own anxious feelings when she travels there without a companion and is stared at, there is still a vast difference in the white/black culture and much mistrust on both sides. With the supporting characters of her grandmother and a handsome co-WPA worker, Rena learns things about the past that she never learned in school. More importantly, she learns about the life-long spiritual journey of the former slave, and this changes Rena’s outlook on her own life and on her family she previously had trouble tolerating, and also on the man who has been transporting her to Hell’s Half Acre to conduct the interviews. This transformation flows perfectly. It’s not rushed for the sake of the story or preachy at all. The ending held a surprising twist that will cause this story to stay in readers’ minds for a long time.

I really enjoyed this book, and having recently read Lisa Wingate’s The Book of Lost Friends, I found Under the Tulip Tree a fitting companion. Highly recommended.

Cindy Thomson, Novel PASTimes

I received a free advanced reader copy from the publisher with no obligation to review.

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