“What was I writing, exactly? Romance? Drama? Slice of life? Romantic comedy?… I realized it was none of those things. It was a love story about a father and a son. The rest was window dressing.” – Nick Wilgus
Author: Nick Wilgus
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 304 Pages
Rating: 5 Stars
Blurb: Wise-cracking Wiley Cantrell is loud and roaringly outrageous—and he needs to be to keep his deeply religious neighbors and family in the Deep South at bay. A failed writer on food stamps, Wiley works a minimum wage job and barely manages to keep himself and his deaf son, Noah, more than a stone’s throw away from Dumpster-diving.
Noah was a meth baby and has the birth defects to prove it. He sees how lonely his father is and tries to help him find a boyfriend while Wiley struggles to help Noah have a relationship with his incarcerated mother, who believes the best way to feed a child is with a slingshot. No wonder Noah becomes Wiley’s biggest supporter when Boston nurse Jackson Ledbetter walks past Wiley’s cash register and sets his sugar tree on fire.
Jackson falls like a wet mule wearing concrete boots for Wiley’s sense of humor. And while Wiley represents much of the best of the South, Jackson is hiding a secret that could threaten this new family in the making.
When North meets South, the cultural misunderstandings are many, but so are the laughs, and the tears, but, as they say down in Dixie, it’s all good.
Review: I had never heard of Nick Wilgus before seeing this title on offer for review. Evidently he is quite well-known as an author and screenwriter, and his work has been recognized within the literary community for its excellence. My introduction to Mr. Wilgus’s work was nothing short of extraordinary. I loved Shaking the Sugar Tree so much. As far as I can tell, and I had to do quite a bit of looking to find this information, (I read about 50 times that Pam Tillis recorded a song of the same name in the 90s) the title refers to shaking up someone’s comfort and complacency to see if you achieve the desired effect, which seems to be a change in their behavior or feelings toward the tree shaker. As a Yankee, my limited knowledge of Dixie was a hindrance in understanding the title, but not the book itself. And the book was breathtaking.
First, I will get my little pet peeves out of the way, then I will be able to concentrate on the 95% of the book that was sensational: lack of condom use between partners who don’t know each other well enough to trust the other’s word. As a woman, I think that if a prospective sexual partner whom you have known only briefly says, “I’m clean,” it’s not the best idea to trust their word alone these days. I may be naïve in this belief as I don’t have any experience as a gay man, so other readers may hold an entirely different opinion on the subject. Then there was “gay-married”. I chose to believe this to be a tongue-in-cheek reference by Mr. Wilgus to the consensus of many Southerners that gay couples somehow marry differently than heterosexual couples. The continual reference to getting “gay-married” instead of just “married” would have gotten annoying if I took it seriously.
Wiley (only in the South will you find a man named after a cartoon character!) is a gay single dad. He is a failing writer, dirt-floor poor, and struggling to get by with a child who is deaf as well as being born addicted to methamphetamines. In a moment of youthful misjudgment, Wiley, while trying to be the straight young man his family and community demanded him to be, got his meth-addicted girlfriend pregnant. As soon as Noah was born, his mom took off and is now in prison. Noah’s needs take center stage in Wiley’s life. Wiley often hides his loneliness and frustration with his living situation behind his constant joking. He is a complete smart-ass. It is hard to know which things he says are serious, so it’s safer to assume none of them are.
Wiley’s humor fades in comparison to that of his Papaw, a politically incorrect, loud-mouthed, opinionated, bigoted, homophobic grumpy old man. In the South, they evidently have a saying about not hiding your crazy in the attic, but putting on the front porch to display. This is surely the case with Papaw, who had me laughing out loud as often as he had me infuriated by the seemingly cruel jokes he made whenever he spoke. Papaw is just one of the many supporting characters with whom Nick Wilgus surrounded Wiley and Jack. They were all such an important part of the story. All the characters were integral to the evolution of Wiley and Jack’s relationship as they, themselves evolved as well.
Before I move on to Jack, I need to say a tiny bit more about Wiley. As a single, poor dad of a special needs child, there were several clichés Mr. Wilgus could have gone with. There are stereotypes aplenty to choose from: the selfless parent who gives up everything for his child; the welfare rat; the taking advantage of family help while living a selfish single life; the father who ships his child off to a “special” school for the deaf; or the absolute bottom of the barrel father, who deserts his child all together. Wiley was not one of these alone, but pieces of some.
I was so impressed with the threads of realism Mr. Wilgus wove into Wiley’s character. Wiley is portrayed as imperfect. He is lonely and wants a lover or husband. He is frustrated with and sometimes bitter about his situation. He loves his son dearly and wants to protect him, but refuses to allow Noah to use his disabilities as excuses for bad behavior. Wiley is not easy to pigeonhole. He is a normal human being, one with all the faults and strengths the rest of us have. It was refreshing to read about him and all his normal!
Jackson is a pediatric nurse who recently moved to Mississippi from Boston. The reasons behind that move become a focal point of the plot, but aren’t revealed until well into the book. What does happen early on is that Jack falls hard and fast for both Wiley and Noah. Or, as Mr. Wilgus put it, “he fell like a wet mule wearing concrete boots.” He isn’t sure what to make of the rest of the family, though, especially Papaw. If Wiley has a jocularity that’s hard for a Yankee to read, imagine the trouble Jack had figuring out Papaw’s “jokes”.
Jack and Wiley’s relationship took most of the familiar turns found in M/M romance novels. They had the predictable ups and downs which we have come to expect and accept. What made this book different, though, was the raw emotion shown by all the characters. This isn’t the first romance written about a single parent finding love while raising a disabled child alone. It is, however, the first I have read that portrays those characters as emotionally honest as Mr. Wilgus does in Shaking the Sugar Tree. The anguish, disappointment and sense of inadequacy Noah feels that fuel his fear of abandonment are expressed straightforwardly, as only a child can do. The conviction Wiley shows so decisively when Jack’s reason for moving comes to light is either stubborn and knee-jerk, or smart and protective, depending on how you read it. The more I thought about it, the more I vacillated between the two. Either way, it gave me something to think about. My emotions went from mountain top to rock bottom and back again while reading this outstanding book. Laughing out loud and crying could be heard in turn, coming from my room. A visitor to my home may have though that the family had hidden their crazy in that room down the hall.
There is so much love in this book, the love between a father and his son, between a man and his lover. That of a heart-broken little boy for the mom whose actions he can’t understand, the unconditional love a supportive mother feels for her child, manifested by clearly wanting his happiness. The love, and sometimes not so much, between brothers, even the loving way in which everyone chastises Papaw but accepts him as he is. The love a grandmother has to express for a grandchild, no matter how painful the surrounding circumstances may be. Shaking The Sugar Tree isn’t just a love story, it is love stories.