Of “Amazonian” size, and weighed down by a name she detests, with a chip too heavy even for her broad shoulders, Juniper Tree Burning hits the road in a pick-up truck from Albuquerque to Seattle to be where Sonny, her sickly younger brother, jumped to his death. This journey drags at the core of Goldberry Long’s ambitious first novel, unless one agrees with Juniper/Jennifer that “small things are the reasons for large things that follow.”
Promissory-note imagery will pay interest later or often earlier, for this novel flashes back and ahead as Jennifer’s vulnerable “I” alternates with her more mature seeing eye. She views men defensively as billiard balls in her favorite game that “only go where you put them.” She wonders if her decision to study medicine began with a still- warm deer’s heart into which her cruel hunter father thrust her tiny hand.
Now twenty-eight and married to fellow medical student Chris Braverman, with whom she fell in love while beating him in pool, Jennifer wishes, as she rides a bus to Seattle and her dead brother, that she had not fled Chris; that she weren’t forever split between Jenny, strong and normal and smart, and Juniper, a helpless crybaby. Despite an evocative elegy for Sunny Boy Blue, the story’s happy ending is largely unearned. Jennifer melts when Chris catches up with her.
One wonders, finally, how closely author Long’s deeply-felt novel mirrors her own life and whether she can go beyond it. Its forebear is Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club: A Memoir (1995), a nonfiction best-seller in which the author looks back on a deprived adolescence in rural Texas. With Juniper Tree Burning, Long joins a distinguished few—Dickens and Salinger among them—who have converted dysfunction to high art.