This whimsical novel, South of the Buttonwood Tree, is Heather Webber’s second work of magical realism and, like her first one, Midnight at the Blackbird Café, takes place in the charming Southern setting of Alabama. It is a warm-hearted story about a small town, its secrets, and the familial ties that bind us together.
A newborn baby is found at the base of the prophetic sycamore tree, better known to the community as the Buttonwood Tree. With the baby is a button ostensibly carved by the mystics of the tree with a special message: “Give the baby to Blue Bishop.”
Blue Bishop struggles with her family’s history. She is the next to youngest of five siblings but only two, she and Percy, are still alive, their two older brothers were shot and killed when attempting to rob a bank. Another brother was killed while preventing a woman from being attacked by an armed robber in an alleyway. Good intentions or not, trouble seems to follow the Bishop family, except for Blue, who is a children’s books author, manager of the town bookstore, and honest to a fault, but not everyone in the town of Buttonwood, Alabama wants to see Blue adopt the abandoned infant. Some want the baby for their own family.
Sarah Grace is a member of one of the most prominent families in Buttonwood. Her father has been the mayor for ten years and is now running for governor. His candidacy puts the family in an uncomfortable spotlight and is unfortunate timing for Sarah, as she contemplates the merit of her rebound marriage to an angry alcoholic.
Sarah and Blue have always been on good terms, but never close friends. When Sarah approaches Blue about buying Blue’s family farmhouse that isn’t for sale, secrets begin to surface, like the appearance of squatters who’ve taken up residence on the property and, the biggest secret of all, the identity of the abandoned child’s biological mother.
While the judge determines where the baby should live permanently, Blue becomes deeply attached to the infant, who bears a resemblance to members of the Bishop family. As if her life mirrors Blue’s, Sarah finds an abandoned dog, or it finds her, and they become inseparable in the same way the newborn is never far from Blue’s arms.
The baby’s unknown birth mother is the subject of an investigation that has members of the community taking DNA tests and doubting the results. The air of mystery, the feeling of romance, and the smell of scandal makes this book a compelling read that is both entertaining and suspenseful. And for food lovers, Webber has included plenty of mouth watering moments such as when Blue and Percy share mini chewy chocolate espresso cookies among other delectable treats.
Loose ends are tied up, unrequited love is honored, and some reputations are repaired while others are tarnished in this tale of two young women finding their way in the world, deciding how they want to change and become who they always wanted to be.
Blue and Sarah alternate as first-person narrators; characters developing the story through two separate but related lenses, a technique employed by Webber in her previous novel, Midnight at the Blackbird Café.
Several important themes are woven into the fabric of the pages of South of the Buttonwood Tree, such as the fluid definition of family, the wrong tendency to judge a person by their bloodline, endearing guilt, and the ability of the human heart to continually heal, mend and grow stronger with love.
South of the Buttonwood Tree
By Heather Webber
Published on July 21, 2020