Tree Soldier:A Novel of Love, Forgiveness and the Great Depression



What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million, 1857?

1136. We believe it is generally admitted that transplanted trees succeed best when their early growth has been in soil similar to that for which they are destined to be placed permanently. If raised in such a soil, and transplanted to that which is thin and poor, they seem to receive a shock from which with difficulty they recover.

TREE SOLDIER is published

After several weeks of pouring over manuscripts, formatting and terms like Mobipocket, Digital Platforms and other e-book matters, my novel, TREE SOLDIER, was published on Kindle. A book form is fast in the works. It has been a labor of love, a story about a college educated young man not only damaged by the Great Depression but by personal choices. It also tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR’s enduring and much loved work/make program of the 1930s. Just as the Greatest Generation loses one of its own who went through WW II, the men who served in the CCC are passing away too. It was time for a fiction story to focus on the lives of enrolles at one camp in the Pacific NW – Joisey Squad.

Here is the gist of the story:

One mistake can ruin a life. One mistake can transform it. A government forestry camp set deep in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest might not seem the likely place to find redemption, but in 1935, Park Hardesty hopes for just that.  Blaming himself for the fiery accident that caused his brother’s disfigurement and the death of the bootlegging woman he loved, planting trees, building bridges and mentoring tough, homesick New Jersey boys brings him both penitence and the renewal of his own self-worth. When he wins the love of Kate Alford, a local naturalist who envisions joining the Forest Service, which allows only men, he also captures the ire of a camp officer who refuses to let her go. Just when he is ready to seek his brother’s forgiveness, he is falsely accused of rape. Every aspect of his life he has tried to rebuild is put in jeopardy. In the end, the only way he can defend himself is to tell the truth about his brother, but he risks being kicked out of the camp. Worse, he could lose Kate’s love forever.

The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s

Why write about the CCC?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, listening to my mother’s stories of life in early 20th century Idaho. Several of them were about the boys from “New Joisey” occupying a side camp up the creek from her uncle’s ranch. Desperate boys from back East, they were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps doing reclamation projects in the rugged area of the Salmon River. My mom remembers one vividly. He was a talented musician working in camp so he could send money back to his family.

When I thought about writing about the three C’s, I had been living in the Pacific NW for some time. I imagined at first a concept of East meeting West. I had family on both sides of the country, each with different ideas of each other. My CCC boy Park Hardesty (from Pennsylvania) would meet his match in Kate Alford, a local Washington girl who not only was knowledgeable about forestry, logging and mountaineering but could pack a horse as good as a man. She longed to be in the Forest Service when woman were not allowed.

As I began doing research beyond the texts and government-issued materials, however, the story changed. A dear friend, former forester for Washington State Hank Reasoner, gave me the names of several CCC boys in my area. Then in their late 60s and 70s, I sat down with each of them for an interview in order to bring understanding and color to the characters in my novel. The stories that they told me were funny and heart-felt, but everyone of them said the same thing: The CCCs saved their lives.  It saved their families and it saved many from starvation with the jobs and food the camps supplied. (Everyone of them talked about the food and how great it was) The idea of redemption took hold. Park came out West first to flee the damage he had caused to his brother, but when he became part of the CCCs, he found a way to help his family, his mother in particular, while regaining his own self-respect through the work he did.

Tenements of New Jersey Meets Tenements of the NW: The Trees

A large portion of the boys who were in the CCCs in the West came from back East, due in part to the number of projects available. Veterans I interviewed said that they were often afraid of the forests and the wild life in them and they were smaller than local boys. Often the uniforms were too big. But they did the work and they worked as hard as any one else. Their work has lasted in the wonderful structures around Washington State.

Another thing they started was the environmental movement by the countless plantings and reclamation they did.  In Tree Soldier, a teenage enrollee from New Jersey named Mario Spinelli writes about his experience for the camp newspaper, The Mountain Call, An Avalanche of News in a poem:

Forest Lessons

In these deep dallying woods I walk

Far from the giant concrete forests I have known

To see the wonders of the land and streams

And wield the woodcraft I’ve been shown.

Today, most of the men I interviewed have passed on. I hope that when reading Tree Soldier the reader will learn to appreciate the life of the average enrollee and their near-forgotten story of being “tree soldiers” for  FDR’s Tree Army. In a time of great distress, these young men were saved from the dole line, but in the end saved something for all of us: nature.

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