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Book Review: The Witness Tree: The Story of Hattie Plain by Peter Tyner

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Hattie Plain is an old woman, intent on finally reaching her goal in life. In her nineties, she has just found the perfect position, advice columnist at the Daily Record. As she leaves her home intent on an interview, she is startled from her reverie by her neighbor and best friend Ruth. Always the pessimist, she believes that Hattie is just too old and will make a fool of herself. Hattie knows better, she wants a chance at an interview and has her resume with her in an old, beat-up Wal-Mart shopping bag. For want of a better form, this resume is her life story and her background, which makes her the perfect person to run the advice column.

Upon reaching the paper and stating her intent, she receives the brush off by the first person she encounters. She informs her that they are not hiring for the position and to head on home. Now Hattie is not having any of this; didn’t she just read that the previous columnist was fired?

She finds a chair and sets herself down, vowing not to leave until she receives her interview. As the day wears on, Hattie is first ignored., then questioned, and finally threatened as she continues to remain firm. She has just heard the name of the man in charge and will no longer allow just anyone to interview her, only him, Mr. James Pierce. As frustration sets in with the staff, the owner of the paper finally shows up with security guards to escort her from the building.

It is at this point that things get a bit wild. As the guards grab her arms to lift her into a wheelchair, she stumbles pulling one of the guards on top of her. As he struggles to cuff her, she immediately starts to bruise. One of the staffers is on hand with his cell phone and taking pictures, which further panics the staff. When Hattie is finally lead to a holding room, rumors of her capture and possible abuse are leaked to the neighboring news groups.

As Mr. Pierce finally hears about the hubbub, he arrives in time to meet the indomitable Hattie Plain. Agreeing to an interview as long as she agrees to clear up the unfounded rumors, he is taken aback by the resume she has retrieved for her interview. Can he convince her that the position is not right for her, and get her to understand the paper’s stance on the subject?

Hattie Plain is a fascinating woman, and in A Witness Tree: The Story of Hattie Plain, Peter Tyner has put together a profound history of her life. The story is told through the notes and letters, as well as articles collected over her lifetime, revealing a life of amazing strength and courage, beginning at the age of 13. The beginning of Hattie’s reminiscing is as a young girl at her first job writing essays for life at the newspaper in her hometown, working for Mr. Davis.

What Peter Tyner does so well is build a story from bits and parts of the writings and clipping of Hattie’s past, building on the joys and pains, and the unforgiving approach society had to people of color. The heartache and pain resonate with a fierceness that pulls you in. The novel brings to light the issues of the day.

We follow the murders and mysteries of a time in history that included Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We relive the memories of the musical stylists of a time when black music was coming to the fore. Tyner weaves Hattie’s life through all the highlights and lowlights of the era, and finds a way to incorporate her life, making this an amazing and interesting journey.

I found myself tearing up as I read some of the stories and was horrified by the homes and lives destroyed during the era. This was a fast-paced, extremely interesting story of historical significance.

I would recommend this story for a discussion group. It has great range and histories, names that resonate with the times and a character that exemplifies the very worst and best in all of us. This is a wonderful book and a must-have for your library. If you enjoy history, you will enjoy the effortless weaving of historical names and places as well as the actual events of the day, making this a true reading adventure.

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About Leslie Wright

Leslie Wright is an author and blogger in the Northwest.