I stumbled upon Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary DeMuth in an attempt to find a good "Christian" novel that was also literary. This book popped up on Google so I bought it. This was a few years ago when I was really desperate to find a book that came from a Christian worldview that was also written well and not shoving beliefs down the readers throat. It took me a long time to pick it up but I finally got to reading it.
When I first started reading this book, I really didn't like it. For some reason that I couldn't quite comprehend, I wanted to stop reading the book altogether. Part of me wondered if it was the graphic nature of the story but I'm not usually bothered by that sort of thing. The main character, Mara, is raped not even ten pages into the novel. DeMuth goes into great detail and I did feel a bit turned off but that didn't explain why I wanted to stop reading when all of it was said and done. I have since realized as I read on that it was the writing style that was a turn off. DeMuth is in no way a bad writer but her style made me feel nostalgia toward another writer and that writer was...well, my 17 year old self. Halfway through the book I was suddenly reminded of my writing style in high school since I wrote almost every day in study hall. If I had read this book back then, I bet I would have considered it a favorite. Now I'm not one to say you can't read a book that is below your age level...I'm actually very much against people accusing children's literature as being simple. However, I was a bit turned off by this realization.
As I said above, the book begins with our nine year old protagonist Mara being raped by a high school student, with a John Deer hat, nicknamed General. The book revolves around Mara's psychology after this incident as well as Mara's family history that she knows nothing about.
This book was a quicker read than expected. I became very engrossed in Mara's family mystery and desperately awaited the reveal to the community that General had been rapping Mara. The build up was excellent. The book surprisingly moved at a fast paced mixed with the slow nature of the story. I also had a bit of fun toward the end of the book when I began to guess outcomes and tried to figure out the ending based on clues given by characters and literary techniques that the author set up.
However, despite my enjoyment there was a huge low to this novel. While the book does an excellent job at keeping the reader invested and DeMuth perfectly illustrates Mara's psychology, the ending was a huge disaster. I don't mean it was a disaster in terms of the outcome; I mean disaster in terms of the ending execution. The entire novel drags the reader along wondering who Mara's family is and when will General's true identity be exposed. 320 pages out of the 346 sets this up! And all we get are simple info dumps and cliche moments. This technique isn't always bad. Harry Potter books often have info dumps at the end. But the big difference between this book and the Harry Potter books is that Harry Potter is fast paced and has tons and tons of explanations to give that the info dumps, while a tad bit on the easy side by the author, work. The ending of Watching the Tree Limbs was way too fast compared to what was set up. I would have liked to see Mara find out about her past in intervals over time, not in super small bits that don't make sense and then one huge info dump. Another problem I found was that DeMuth spent more time on a passage about Mara accepting Jesus (a passage I didn't quite understand) than on the real issues she set up to be resolved. In fact, this type of scene is what I was avoiding. It took the book from interesting mystery to cliche Christian stereotype. Mara's struggles throughout the novel were General, her past, and struggling with her own goodness. Yes Mara struggled with her faith but this book treated it as once Mara accepted Jesus, everything suddenly worked out and that is a very wrong and damaging tween idea of God. Finding faith doesn't mean our problems disappear. The climax became Mara accepting Christ instead of focusing on what the book had set up so nicely. In my opinion, many "Christian" books fall for this trap and this is why so many aren't considered literary. They are essentially Christian propaganda.
Another big disappointment was Mr. Winningham. He has no character development what-so-ever yet DeMuth makes him a big part of the story. The book asks us to sympathize with him and while his back story helped with that, his character didn't give me any signs that I would like him. He never grew from this experience that he was going through. He should have been given more of a part to play in the present than simply playing a huge role in the past.
Overall, this book was enjoyable. It wasn't exactly a stellar read but it was a good read. I would recommend it purely on the basis that Mara's character development is fantastically done. My rating is 3 out of 5 stars.