|Gracie McBride has a reputation as something of a wild child in her hometown of Starvation Lake, a small town in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. When she is found hanging from a tree which she herself had christened “the shoe tree”, some natives are shocked, but some are not surprised. Her second cousin, Augustus (Gus) Carpenter, now an editor at the Pine County Pilot, Starvation Lake’s small biweekly newspaper, falls somewhere squarely between the two camps. He knows her reputation for doing the unconventional, but he can’t find a reason, logical or not, for her to kill herself.
Gus returned to Starvation Lake only a few years ago after a major misunderstanding with one of the big Detroit newspapers. He misses the excitement of working for a major newspaper, but his widowed mother still lives in the small town he grew up in and he is increasingly aware of her growing need for his assistance. Starvation Lake also has other attractions… his passion for hockey is easily appeased here and Darlene Esper , a childhood friend now works for the local sheriff’s office. Though her superiors are satisfied with the verdict of suicide, Darlene, spurred on by Gus, decides to conduct an informal investigation.
Darlene’s estranged husband, Jason Esper, has gotten wind of Darlene’s connection to his rival from youth hockey league.He tells Gus bluntly that he should leave his wife alone, especially now that Jason is on assignment in Starvation Lake helping with the construction of a new hockey rink for the small town that is supposed to reverse the financial misfortunes that have beset the area in recent times. On the one hand, Gus knows Darlene is more than capable of taking care of herself and they aren’t officially an item, but he also know that Jason does not play by the rules in either hockey or business and there is something definitely unorthodox going on with the financing for the new hockey venue.
Life is further complicated by the fact that Gracie was once Darlene’s best friend. Though Gracie abruptly and unexpectedly moved downstate eighteen years ago her reappearance had rejuvenated their friendship. Darlene can’t ignore the coincidence of her friend’s sudden return and subsequent death. Ostensibly Gracie had left to go to college having somehow gotten the tuition through a scholarship of sorts, but apparently never graduated. What had happened to her during the ensuing eighteen years? Why had she suddenly returned?
To Gus’ amazement, during her years away Gracie had developed an interest in hockey, a sport she couldn’t abide in her youth. Gus needs answers to all these questions. Understanding the nature of small towns, he cannot but help wondering whether all of these unanswered questions are not somehow related.
At heart The Hanging Tree is a mystery concerning the apparent suicide of a young woman by hanging herself from a tree that is a local landmark. It does not escape the thoughts of the residents of Starvation Lake that this particular tree was chosen for a reason, if, in fact, the young woman in question actually committed suicide.
However, the novel encompasses much more than the puzzle of a woman’s death. It is a wonderful snapshot of life in a small town. All of the financial woes of small town living without the presence of a major employer in the area are at odds with the benefits of the support network that develops where everyone knows everyone else. That being said, everyone knowing everyone else has its downside as well. The fact that this story takes place in lower Michigan adds to its poignancy. Of late, Michigan has suffered greatly from the downturn in the economy as this tale provides a concrete example.
Bryan Gruley uses his expertise as an accomplished journalist to describe some of the workings of a small town newspaper. The actual production of the paper as well as the interplay between staff members and management add to the realism of the plot. The economics of what actually sells newspapers vies with the reality of trying to present the public with an accurate picture of a situation.
Hockey plays a prominent role in the plot although an understanding of the game is not essential to enjoyment of the book. Those knowledgeable and passionate about the game will enjoy the author’s commentary on the games he describes, as well as the different skills various positions on the team require (not to mention the equipment).
While Starvation Lake is a fictional town, many of the other locations described in the book actually exist. Long time Michigan residents and natives will enjoy the references to places from the Detroit suburbs to Traverse City and many points in between. Mr. Gruley also gets the details on the weather and climate achingly accurate as well. While his previous novel, Starvation Lake would have been a perfect stand alone novel, Mr. Gruley has shown that his writing skills are well honed and up to the task of producing an entertaining and informative sequel.