“The Tree We Come Home To” by Jane Olmsted. Davenport, Iowa: Legacy Book Press, 2021. 261 pages, $12.99 (paperback).
Jane Olmsted’s new memoir, “The Tree We Come Home To,” tells the story of the murder of her youngest son, Casey Olmsted, at age 20. In breathtaking detail, Olmsted describes the events that led to Casey’s death, the circumstances of his murder and the torturous years that followed, including the investigation, trial and sentencing of his killer. In doing so, she asks the question: How does one go on after such a tragedy? The author’s longing is palpable: “I want to call out, now what? Where is the peace of mind? When can I see my boy and hold him?”
Olmsted succeeds at putting the reader directly inside her grief-stricken shoes. We feel her pain, her heartbreak, in a way that is all too real.
On Oct. 26, 2009, Casey Olmsted got into a heated argument with 18-year-old Patrick Burns over a young woman they both knew. Infuriated by their text messages, Casey drove to Burns’ home to confront him. When Patrick saw Casey pulling up in front of his house, he grabbed a pistol and headed for the door. But his father, Edmund Leland Burns, snatched the gun from his son and proceeded to shoot in the direction of the car four times, even though an unarmed Casey was already pulling away. Olmsted’s anguish over this scene is gut-wrenching: “I am sick with the thought of him driving away, knowing or not knowing what hit him, aware or not aware as the car rolled into the ditch. Alone, my poor boy, alone.”
“The Tree We Come Home To” is Olmsted’s attempt to examine this tragic incident from every angle, trying to make sense of a senseless crime. The author offers an unflinching look at formative moments in Casey’s history and includes those memories alongside letters, journal entries, memorials, songs, poems and words from everyone in their extended family, including Casey himself. The result is something far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a heartbreaking and poignant portrait of loss.
Reading Casey’s words on the page is a powerful experience, a raising of the dead, if you will, and the reader can’t help but be moved by Casey’s lifelong desire to pull himself out of a downward spiral fueled by addiction, insecurity and violence: “I know I’ve messed up a lot. It is not too late but could never be soon enough.” Olmsted’s memoir functions as a character study of a young man who, like many people his age, struggled to find his way in the world.
Casey is depicted by his mother as a person who felt things – both love and anger – with great intensity as well as a person who never learned to harness those emotions. The reader simultaneously wants to hug Casey and to shake him. But his mother also shows him to be a person who naturally put others at ease, most especially his niece, Omni, and his daughter, Leah. A cousin described him as “someone you could be still with.”
At the same time, Olmsted offers an unflinching look at herself and everyone in the family: “It’s hard to acknowledge that he was as wounded as he was, or that I am so flawed.” Olmsted’s dismantling of her family’s dysfunction forces the reader to consider their own history, asking themselves the same questions the author asks herself: What could I have done differently? What could I do better? How can I learn from this going forward?
Much like Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Olmsted’s memoir is a book about contemplation, a true study of the ontological nature of being. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What can we do with the little time we have? “I think a lot about being dead myself,” Olmsted writes. “Whether I will finish anything I’ve started and what it means if it ends up not mattering to anyone. What ‘good energy’ have I put into the world, and what possible healing have I offered to this broken place?”
Still, at the heart of this tragic story is a glimmer of hope. Casey’s family goes on, holding each other that much closer having lost one of their own. As Olmsted says near the end of the book, “It’s not corny to be grateful for what you have, or to realize that if you lost it, how lonely you would be, how bleak the world.” Every interaction after Casey’s death is characterized with this kind of awareness. The author seems to be saying that if they don’t love each other more fiercely than ever, then Casey’s death will have been for nothing. And in that implicit assertion lies the book’s timeless truth: We must love every day since the next is never certain.
In “The Tree We Come Home To,” Jane Olmsted has provided us with a moving and profound meditation on what it means to be a family, on what it means to love, on what it means to be human. And how one deals with grief when the unthinkable happens. This memoir is a great gift to readers, allowing us to reflect deeply on both the beauty and fragility of life.
– Editor’s note: The author will discuss and sign copies of her book at a forum held by Western Kentucky University’s Gender & Women’s Studies program and the Department of Social Work on March 23 at 5 p.m. in Cherry Hall 125 at WKU.
– Reviewed by Molly McCaffrey of Bowling Green.