Percival Everett’s The Trees: revenge novel’s mysterious ending, explained

Percival Everett’s The Trees

Percival Everett’s The Trees is a darkly comical take on the racial lynchings and situation in the United States. Released in 2021, let’s see what the ending is about.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Bryant-Milam family and their dark fate

At a family gathering in the Bryant house in Money, Mississippi, Carolyn Bryant- or Granny C- reflects upon her past and regrets wrongfully accusing Emmett Till. That accusation had led to the 14-year old’s ruthless lynching by her husband and her brother.

Soon after, her nephew Junior Junior Milam is found dead- with a barbed wire around his throat, his testicles cut off and in the hand of a black man, whose body seems much more dead and face disfigured.

But after the bodies have been transported to the M.E., the black man’s body disappears from the morgue, only to resurface again at the murder scene of Wheat Bryant- Carolyn’s son- killed in the same way in his house.

Carolyn goes in shock as she realizes who the dead black body is of. And the body disappears, again. Finally, after killing another Milam in Chicago, the body ends up in Granny C’s room, seeing which she dies.

Murder, investigation and records

2 special agents are sent to Money, Mississippi from Hattiesburg- Ed and Jim, both black men. They’re dumbfounded at the disappearing body and set out to make sense of it. The town is riddled with racial discrimination and prejudice, going on from generations.

They investigate alongside Money sheriff and deputies. They get in touch with a girl, Gertrude, who takes them to her 105-year-old great-grandmother Mama Z’s house as she’s an old wise lady who might help them.

There, she shows them her records room which has the name and file of every lynching victim since her birth, amounting to more than 6000 dossiers.

More murders, all over the country

Subsequent chapters of the novel show multiple more killings of white men in the same manner. Barbed wire, cut off testicles and a deader than dead looking bodies of not only black, but in many places Asian too. FBI gets involved and Special Agent Herberta Hind, a black woman, is sent to work with Jim and Ed.

Together they try to connect the dots of the murders and the apparent racial tensions in the area. They find out that the body isn’t really Till’s but a lost cadaver, among many others. They track down the driver of the van carrying the cadavers in Money itself, in a restaurant where Gertrude took them. Ed suspects her because she lies about her whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Gertrude calls up her friend from college, Damon Thruff, a professor of ethnics in University of Chicago to help make sense of the murders. He is taken to Mama Z and spends his time going through the records.

Strange and supernatural uprisings

By now, the killings have become more gruesome and more visible. Mobs of dead-like, bodies are seen by witnesses all across the country. They chant “rise” as they come towards their targets before killing them and hanging them by the trees, again, testicles cut off.

Because of Ed’s suspicion on Gertrude, he goes to the location where the people have said to have a base. The mansion is big and well kept and only she is present there. Upon asking, she doesn’t deny killing the Milams and Bryant (except Carolyn who died of shock). They did that to avenge those dead, those who couldn’t get justice, even by law.

The other killings- she vows she isn’t aware of that. The house has a freezer room where all cadavers are kept and both she and Ed get locked in there somehow. In a crucial timeframe the others come and rescue them, before embarking on to meet Mama Z- not Gertrude’s real relative but the mastermind.

The ending and it’s interpretation

At Mama Z’s house, the place is quiet. Venturing further, they see Damon in the records room with her, scribbling and writing down the victim’s names- hundreds, thousands. In a previous speech he said that it makes the people real to him and when he’ll erase those names, he’ll set them free.

Mama Z asks the guests whether she should stop him from writing the names. She asks this thrice, eventually making it as if she’s asking the readers. The real question is- should she stop the one person writing the all-too-real accounts of racial hatred, seek justice for them.

In a fictious way, the names Damon writes do come alive from dead (the uprisings) to avenge their own death. But in reality, the list of names will only get longer and longer, with justice delayed or denied.

Even the title of the novel can be interpreted as one, the trees from which the bodies of the lynched were hanged and two, the generational family trees- the living paying for the sins of their forefathers.

Talking about Emmett Till and lynchings with The Booker Prizes, Everett said, “I prefer to think of him as boy who never got to grow up. There are plenty of ghosts haunting American history.”