For the love of trees
Life, death, love, loneliness and grief are the building blocks of Jon Cohen’s wondrous new novel, along with nonstop action, humor and a broad cast of characters whose actions converge like a perfectly crafted jigsaw puzzle.
Undergirding everything in Harry’s Trees is the belief that “the ordinary world is extraordinary, all the time, for everyone.” That guiding principle becomes a recipe for magic that remains firmly rooted in reality, notes Cohen, speaking by phone from his home outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Harry Crane is a U.S. Forest Service analyst who literally can’t see the forest for the trees. This paper-pushing bureaucrat spends his days “in a building utterly bereft of wood,” longing for the smell of pinesap. Although his wife, Beth, urges him to quit and work in a local arboretum, Harry settles for buying a lottery ticket each week and yearning for a stroke of good luck.
Instead, misfortune strikes. After urging her husband to forget his lottery ticket “just this once,” Beth is killed in a freak accident while waiting for Harry. In the aftermath, as Harry tries to find his way past grief and guilt, his world collides with that of a nurse, Amanda Jeffers, and her 10-year-old daughter, Oriana, who are reeling from the sudden death of their husband and father, Dean. After they meet in a forest deemed enchanted by the fairy tale-loving Oriana, Harry begins living in an elaborate tree house built by Dean before he died.
“The call of a tree and the childhood beckoning of a treehouse—that’s interesting to me,” Cohen says. “Everybody’s got a special tree, whether currently as an adult, or a tree from childhood.” He goes on to describe a mulberry tree at the end of his boyhood street that was overgrown with honeysuckle and made for a great nest.
“I’ve had all sorts of trees,” he adds. “Still do.”
Cohen sets his novel in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, where Cohen and his wife once owned a small farmhouse and barn. The property and nearby landmarks provided inspiration, especially for a picturesque library where a beloved librarian, Olive, lends Oriana a strange handmade book called The Grum’s Ledger. This fairy tale about an ogre-like creature becomes pivotal to an amazing cascade of events. Throw in the fact that Oriana wears a red coat and Harry has an evil brother named Wolf, and you’ve got yourself a grown-up fairy tale.
Almost. “There’s not a single thing in there that can’t happen,” Cohen observes. “The world is imbued with a little magic. But I made darn sure that there were real-world explanations for what seem like magical events.”
Grief is the force that unites Harry, Amanda and Oriana, and as Cohen explains, “Again and again, reality-based people are ready for magic. I truly believe that when you are in love or when you grieve, you cross a line and see the world in an altered way.”
It’s no accident that both a librarian and a nurse are major players in Harry’s Trees. Those two details help explain Cohen’s unique career trajectory. He was raised by a children’s librarian mother and an English professor father who was a renowned Herman Melville scholar.
“It was a world immersed in books,” he recalls. “You would think I would go right to writing.”
“I truly believe that when you are in love or when you grieve, you cross a line and see the world in an altered way.”
Ironically, he didn’t write in high school or college. “Not a single story,” Cohen says. He earned an English degree at Connecticut College, but after working as a hospital orderly during a college gap year, he made an unexpected move and obtained a second degree in nursing.
“That ignited everything,” Cohen says. “My 10 years as a registered nurse—working on a cancer ward and then ICU/CCU—that turned me into a storyteller.
“My job was to help people in crisis,” he elaborates. “So many personalities, so many ways to cope, so many intimate and amazing details. So much life. [It was] narrative, action, a ticking clock, something at stake—all right there in a hospital room. And that’s the way I write—something is always happening, constant momentum.”
This surgically precise narrative style is what makes Cohen’s writing so readable. And his plot is exactly like an operating room—controlled chaos that leads to a carefully planned outcome.
In his time off from the hospital, Cohen finally began writing stories. He eventually wrote two novels (Max Lakeman and the Beautiful Stranger and The Man in the Window), received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and left medicine. Nonetheless, he feels that nursing became his muse, and each of his novels features a nurse.
But this nurse-turned-writer had yet another career change up his sleeve. After his novels were optioned for movies, he taught himself screenwriting with help from a book titled Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. He caught the attention of director Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed), which led to Cohen writing the screenplay for the 2002 blockbuster Minority Report.
“I was happy to have the experience and very lucky,” Cohen says. “It’s nice to have my name on the poster.” Although he describes his screenwriting adventures as “a lark and an oddity,” Cohen always approached the experience pragmatically: “It helped pay some of the bills, but I treated it very rationally and saved the money. I didn’t buy a Jaguar.”
With Harry’s Trees, Cohen has returned to his writing roots. He’s a novelist once more, writing “the one and true voice that I do over and over again—the small, decent guy overwhelmed by events.”
Author photo by Andy Shelter.