The Caleb Trees by Dee Holmes
(Jove, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-515-12904-6
***
Whoever filed this book under the Romance section did a great disservice to the author and prospective readers. The Caleb Trees is an intelligent, somber look at the aftermath of teenage suicide. Yes, part of the novel deals with a husband and wife struggling to re-define their marriage, but the focus is on the effect of suicide on a family and community. Former category romance novelist Dee Holmes is trying to branch out; too bad the publishing world doesn't recognize that and label the book accordingly.

The DeWildes appear to be the perfect family. Jack has risen above his blue-collar roots to become the owner of a successful real estate business. Meg takes care of the house and dabbles in gardening. Their two teenaged children, Caleb and Bethany, are popular and well-adjusted. Caleb has seemed a little moody lately, and he and Jack have clashed several times about Caleb's future plans, but these seem like typical adolescent behaviors. So it is completely unexpected when the police appear at Meg's door to tell her that her beloved son is dead, the victim of a hanging suicide.

After an initial period of mourning, the surviving DeWildes take different paths. Jack wants to move past the tragedy and get back to his work, hoping that no one ever finds out what he was doing the day Caleb died. Bethany, without her older brother to protect her, takes a walk on the wild side with a high school senior who has a dangerous reputation. Meg alone wants to know why a promising young man would take his own life. She and Jack argue bitterly over her need to find answers. Before long, it looks as if Caleb's death may destroy the family.

The Caleb Trees sensitively examines many aspects of a devastating issue. Caleb's death has a ripple effect on the entire Rhode Island community in which he lived. The high school principal, while sympathetic, fears that any spotlight on Caleb might inspire copycat suicides. The well-known facts about high suicide rates among gay teenagers cause speculation about Caleb's sexual preferences. And the "what if's" plague everyone who knew Caleb, as they ponder futilely about what they could have done to change the tragic outcome.

Holmes does an admirable job at portraying the DeWildes in a realistic fashion. Bethany's rebellious acting out is easy to understand, as is Meg's maternal search for answers. The toughest nut to crack in the book is Jack. Holmes provides him with a difficult childhood - a tough-as-nails father who died young, an alcoholic mother and drug-abusing brother - but it's still hard to warm up to him when he insists on burying his grief and dismissing Meg's quest for the truth. Of all the characters, he eventually travels the farthest, but remains barely likeable at best.

After this unflinching look at teen suicide, I was disappointed to see things tied up neatly, when a clearly identifiable villain is unmasked at the story's end, leading to a simplistic explanation for Caleb's death. After suggesting throughout the book that there were no easy answers to why Caleb killed himself, it felt like a cop-out to suddenly provide one. One unexpected twist to this last minute revelation was even more disturbing, lending a creepy tone to an otherwise straightforward drama. Without giving away the plot, I will just say that Meg makes decisions for the sake of family preservation that are hard to comprehend.

Judging from the preview of Holmes' next Jove book, The Secret Stones, the author is carving out a niche for herself with thought-provoking novels about real-life families in difficult and potentially catastrophic situations. Potential readers will have to judge for themselves if they are in the mood for such a stark look at reality, or if they need more escapist fare.

--Susan Scribner


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