When Tori Burns’ family is contacted shortly after her father’s death about a house and some land that was left to them in Chaptico, Maryland, they are suddenly moving into a century home. So begins the uncovering of the mysterious circumstances that lead to Tori’s family owning a small parcel of land on the historic Slaughter farm. The move kicks off many unexplainable happenings that seem to all come back to a witch’s curse from 300 years ago. Elle Cosimano strives to connect the present of the Slaughter land with a darker past, with little success overall.
The Suffering Tree (2017) is one part historical fantasy, one part adolescent romance, and two parts mystery. Tori is a teen navigating a new community, the grief of losing her father, and her personal demons. Often when Tori gets overwhelmed with what’s going on around her she self-harms, the descriptions of which are often graphic. Her struggle with her mental health that sometimes becomes physical harm is something the book is opened with but then is never resolved fully. For something as graphic as self-harm to be not only an opening scene but an ongoing fear of the main character, I expected more constructive discussion about her mental health and eventually, her management of her self-harm. Unfortunately, no such journey occurs in The Suffering Tree.
The journey that does happen is one where Tori tries to solve a 300-year-old murder while the victim stands in front of her, very much alive. While this premise initially grabbed my attention, I was nonplussed by the character decisions. The history of Slaughter Farm is uncovered over time and that history includes slavery and indentured servitude. Where I think the author ultimately failed the audience is her treatment of this history. Cosimano puts white servants at the centre of the story in the past, definitively side-stepping any of the discourse surrounding black slavery in the US. The division of the narrative as occurring both in the past (leading up to the murder at the centre of the story) and the present (where Tori is trying to uncover said centuries-old murder) lends ample opportunity for non-white main characters, which Cosimano all but outright ignores. There is one secondary character who is described as non-white, and two tertiary characters. Out of these three characters, one is truly influential to the plot. Overall, it was confusing to read a story explicitly about slavery and indentured servitude in the US without black characters. This whitewashing of the story ultimately stood directly at odds with the historical fiction tendencies of the novel, and felt overall more like a cop out than a meaningful story decision.
Other issues I had with The Suffering Tree range from cookie-cutter villains to flat supporting characters. The Slaughters (the villains if only because of their unfortunate last name), owners of a huge amount of land in Chaptico, Maryland are almost cartoonishly motivated. None of the actions of the Slaughter family members make much sense beyond trying to mitigate gossip about their past. At no point would there have been legal consequences in the present for the events 300 years in the past if they hadn’t been terrible people in the present trying to cover up a historically normal set of circumstances. The events of the past were terrible, but not presently meaningful any more than as family history. In this way, the Slaughters are solely motivated by an urge to save face in front of their modern neighbors, which, frankly, I find somewhat ridiculous. It’s no secret that slavery and indentured servitude existed in the US. The secrets they are trying to keep stray minimally from this fact. The supporting characters in this novel are similarly two-dimensional. Many of them have no reason to help or hinder Tori, but do so anyway. All told, most of the characters amount to some lackluster storytelling.
There were some aspects of The Suffering Tree that could have become something special and interesting, but ultimately, I felt let down by this novel. Tori’s struggles with her self-harm and mental health never came to a satisfying conclusion — something I would have been thrilled to see addressed better in a YA book such as this one. The whitewashing of the slavery narrative felt forced, and detracted from the overall plot. Combined with some flat villains and additional characters, The Suffering Tree didn’t live up to its interesting promises of witchcraft and mystery.