Reviewed by Tori
Favorite Quote: “Can’t we have one conversation that doesn’t involve my penis?”
Wiley Cantrall is a gay single father, raising his disabled son, Noah, after his meth addicted mother abandoned him at birth. A failed writer who supports himself and his son with food stamps and by working as a supermarket cashier, Wiley struggles with his sexuality and the choices he has made while holding his own against a deeply religious southern family and town in which he lives.
When Jackson Ledbetter, a transplant yankee from Boston, struts in to Wiley’s life, Wiley finally feels like life may be be looking up for him. Jackson and Wiley fall hard for one another and Jackson’s unconditional support of Noah only intensifies Wiley’s feelings for him. But Jackson has a secret. A secret that could end them before they get started.
The summer heats up in this backwoods Mississippi town as love is found, lost, and rediscovered. Laughter and tears walk hand in hand as Wiley discovers that forgiveness often comes from within.
Shaking The Sugar Tree is a heartfelt humorous novel about a man, his son, and the love they share between them and with their family. Engaging narrative sprinkled with southern colloquialisms paints a realistic portrait of the life in the rural south. Wilgus touches on such themes as prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, family, pride, and the tenacious hold religion can have on a person. He doesn’t climb on a soap box and lecture the reader. Rather, he uses antidotes and emotional scenes to guide us through Wiley’s life and show us first hand what Wiley deals with as a gay man and a single father on a daily basis. While a straight man would be praised for his efforts, Wiley is condemned because no one can seem to look past his sexual orientation. Heavily character driven, the people we encounter all affect Wiley in some form or fashion. Some lift him up while others try to bring him down. Wiley is expected to fail at every avenue and his journey is filled with both joy and sorrow. Though the story started off clunky for me; I was initially put off by Wiley’s continuous need for one liners, it soon smooths itself out and I was hooked.
“Funny how you can never be too intrinsically disordered when other people want you to watch their kids.”
Wiley has been made to suffer for his choices in life. Being unapologetically gay and choosing to raise his deaf, meth addicted son leaves him at the mercy of his religious judgemental family and others who condemn his lifestyle. Wiley handles it all with grace and humor. He has his moments of self doubt and what parent doesn’t? Everything he does is out of love for his son. It’s a powerful love that shines brightly throughout the book.
Noah is ten and was born addicted to meth. He is deaf and has some other disabilities that are commonly found in children born of addiction. Wiley blames himself for this, figuring that his attempts to be normal is what ultimately led to his son’s problems. Of course, this isn’t true. Just as Wiley has made his own choices, so do others. Rather than dwell on the what if’s, Wiley accepts his son as he is and does everything possible to raise him to the best of his ability.
“You’re my only child and I will never love anyone as much as I love you.”
The secondary characters are a personable outspoken group whose temperament and attitudes will leave you laughing at some of them while screaming at the others. Wilgus writes these people with a unprejudiced hand, neither encouraging nor vilifying their behavior. They are as they are and we are challenged to accept them as such. Wiley’s mother and brother are passively aggressive as they struggle between love of family and love of religion. Wiley’s grandfather is a grumpy outspoken man whose age and illness gives him a sense of freedom that allows him to speak his mind, regardless of the content or fall out. My favorite character in the book though was Noah. A bright beautiful intelligent little boy whose father doesn’t allow him to see his disabilities as hindrances. Safe and secure in his father’s love, Noah greets each day as a new adventure. His interactions with his father, his extended family, and his absent mother are bittersweet and sometimes brutal in their portrayal.
“I don’t understand, daddy. Why doesn’t she like me?”
The romance is a soft sweet flowing river that seduces Wiley with hints of normality. Jackson Ledbetter represents security. When Wiley looks at him, he sees a real chance at marriage and a home. They are delightful together and though there are some sexual interludes, they are off scene. I did feel the conflict that explodes once Jackson’s secret is revealed was more of a plot device to propel Wiley towards making a stand on certain issues.
“Love is risky, Wiley. Didn’t your mama ever tell you that? If you really want to get married and settle down, you’ve got to stop waiting for the perfect man ‘cause there ain’t no such thing.”
The ending is introspective and some what pat as issues that have plagued Wiley and his family suddenly resolve themselves with little fanfare. While I’m all for enlightenment, this panned out to easily. In real life, deeply ingrained doctrine doesn’t simply reinvent itself into a happy ending. Only in fiction does this occur.
Regardless of my issues, Shaking The Sugar Tree is a delightfully moving contemporary that addresses some pretty serious topics with plenty of love, laughter, and honesty.