Martin Cruz moves to Deadwood (known to most people as Lower Brynwood) to live with his “Aunt” Michelle—actually his mother’s cousin, as she’s quick to tell people—because his mother is deployed to Afghanistan and his grandmother has recently passed away. Still grieving and separated from everything he knows and loves, Martin bonds with a huge old tree that marks the turn-around point when he goes running.

It turns out this tree is the Spirit Tree—before the start of the football season, the team carves something into the bark of the ancient tree. Martin takes this disfigurement as a personal assault and the 7th grader tries to stand up to the entire high school football team. He manages not to get beaten up, and he meets Hannah, the younger sister of the star of the football team. The tree gets struck by lightning and starts “texting” the kids by lighting up letters in the years of carvings. It reveals that Lower Brynwood is cursed, which explains why nothing will grow and why industry is dying, and that healing the tree will also heal the town. And it’s up to Hannah and Martin to figure out how to heal the tree.

Deadwood blends supernatural elements with an ecological message and some pretty typical middle school issues that most readers will identify with, like not being totally sure of who you are and how you fit in with the world around you.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Business Ethics

Martin’s “aunt” is moving up in the world. She thinks everyone ought to have the same goals she does, and she tries hard to push them on Martin. She very much looks down on him and on his mother because Martin doesn’t own a suit that fits him. She makes him join the Junior Junior Executives of Tomorrow (Junior JET) where he studies the 7 Habits of Highly Successful Executives—it turns out they’re actually the 7 Deadly Sins. The idea is that you gain success by demanding the universe give it to you. There’s no reason not to want nice things and you should do what it takes to get them.

This is painted with a fairly broad brush—Michelle is willing to do all kinds of underhanded things in the name of getting what she thinks she deserves. She brings a lot of other people into her fold (she starts them young—she’s the one who founded Junior JET because high school is too late to really learn how to be a ruthless executive) and she sees anyone who stands in her way as an enemy. Her morals are quite…flexible—she lies and goes behind people’s backs, she’s happy to use eminent domain to take the house of someone who won’t fall into line.

There’s an implication that most business people are like this, although not all of them are powered by a cursed tree. Michelle works for a cell phone company called Horizon. But her real ambition is to go into politics. When the curse is broken, a lot of her power goes away and she has to scale back her goals—but she’s just going to go into local politics, where she can likely do even more harm (a sequel in the works, maybe?).

There are also green companies and other people who work in business who aren’t awful human beings, but they kind of seem like the exception. Unlike Horizon, who planned to hide a cell tower in the new stadium they were funding, the green company that takes over the project is using environmentally friendly materials and methods. They value education and they bring new jobs to the depressed area.


Martin’s mom is a solider in an active war zone, which definitely plays against normal stereotypes.

“Aunt” Michelle fits a lot of negative stereotypes of a driven, business-type person. She’s a health food nut (but only bland yucky types), she follows all “conventions” about what’s good for you (video games most definitely don’t make the cut), she wants everything organized and controlled (up to and including nature). She spouts mantras and mottos like they mean something. Kids are only adults in training. She can’t understand why everyone won’t just fall in line. There’s pretty much nothing at all redeeming about her character.

Martin used to play a multi-player online roleplaying game until he moved to Lower Brynwood and his computer usage was highly curtailed. He’s seen as a bit of an outcast and a geek in his new school, but his experience playing games helps him problem solve in the real world. The world of the RPG also lets him escape in his imagination, pretending that he’s a powerful elven ranger instead of an isolated 7th grader. Sometimes he’s embarrassed, though, of his hobby. When Hannah’s popular friends make fun of Martin for playing games and possibly dressing up as a character, Hannah notes that it’s not all that different from playing the videogame Catwalk 4 and planning outfits based on the game.

Martin has his own prejudices—he thinks all jocks and frat boys are the same, dismissing them as stupid, self-centered, and mean. Hannah’s brothers are jocks, and they turn out to be good guys.

Hannah is friends with the popular crowd who tend to be more girly. But she’s a soccer jock. She wants to be a scientist but has seen so very few real scientists and even fewer female scientists—it makes her feel like she shouldn’t try to be one. Her father often forgets that she’s an athlete, too, as though girls’ sports matter less than football.

A lot of first impressions are proven wrong and/or overturned. A snotty popular girl in Junior JET changes her opinion of Martin once she finds out that he’s related to Michelle, even though he hates Junior JET and has done nothing to change how he presents himself. As Hannah and Martin research the mystery of the Spirit Tree, they learn that a lot of their assumptions don’t hold up—about each other, as well as about their suspects and what happened. On the other hand, their creepy feelings about some people turn out to be well-founded.


Martin and his mother seem to get along very well, but she’s been gone for a while now. He misses her intensely and he feels like he can’t confide in her because he doesn’t want to make things any harder for her than they already are. She used to play video games with him, and she was good at them. His father sends financial support, but he lives in Florida with his new family. Martin doesn’t feel welcome there with his preschool aged half-brother, so when his grandma dies he doesn’t go live with his dad. Michelle only takes Martin in because she thinks it will be good for her image—mostly he’s very much an inconvenience.

Hannah has a pretty typical family—supportive for the most part, but her dad often forgets about the activities of his youngest child and only daughter. However, he’s willing to put some extra red tape in the way of something at work to buy Hannah and Martin the time to try to save the tree. When this nearly costs him his job, he doesn’t blame Hannah for it. Hannah is a bit embarrassed that her mom is getting fat in her middle age. Hannah’s brothers tease her a bit, but overall they love her and want to help.

Science Vs. Magic

The lines between these two things get very blurry. To explain how a tree could possibly text them, Hannah explores some questionable science about trees communicating through electrical impulses. Martin, who is comfortable with the magic in his RPG, thinks this is obviously an example of magic in the real world. The neighborhood “witch” is actually a scientist, even though she looks a bit like a hippy mystic. The book is definitely supernatural—there’s a real curse and a tree that communicates through electronic devices, and when the tree is healed it simply disappears (it was old—its time had come). But science can potentially explain at least a bit of the mysterious happenings, and the scientists in the book are viewed positively.


With his mother deployed in a war zone, Martin is very aware of the reality of death. He thinks about it a good bit. Not only does he think about the recent death of his grandmother, but he remembers flag draped coffins returning from overseas. This is all driven home more when his mother is injured by shrapnel (she ends up ok). His experiences with death make the possible death of the Spirit Tree affect him that much more.

Lower Brynwood is dying, literally and figuratively. Trees are falling all over the place. Grass and crops won’t grow. Old people are dying sooner than they should. People are getting injured (Hannah’s brother gets a serious concussion, the football coach has a heart attack). Unemployment is rising and the houses are getting run down. These are all symptoms of the curse. Most people seem oblivious to it—they think it’s sad but pretty normal. But Hannah and Martin see the truth and they can act to make things better and save the town.


Martin “may be Puerto Rican” according to one of Hannah’s brothers. His dark curls are mentioned a few times and he calls his grandmother Abuelita, but other than that it doesn’t really come up.


Hannah has been friends with Waverly since they were little. Now, though, they’re mostly cruising by on history—both girls have changed a lot, and they don’t have much in common anymore. It doesn’t lead to a blow up fight, but there is jealousy and misunderstandings and some all too typical middle school pettiness. As Martin gets drawn into Hannah’s crowd, she ends up not wanting to share him and not wanting him to change by being part of the popular crowd, even though those people are her friends. I think these experiences will ring true for a lot of readers.


There are hints that the friendship between Hannah and Martin could become more. It seems like a new thing for both of them—their own feelings are sometimes confusing and muddled. They share a brief kiss at the end of the book.

Nightmare Fuel

The book is kind of creepy, which it’s supposed to be. Trees communicate by scraping across Hannah’s roof and at one point breaking her window. A threat looms over the town. Secret messages are carved into a tree that hint at a great darkness. The curse is hurting people close to Martin and Hannah. It could have gotten really scary, but for me it always stopped short—and I’m kind of sensitive to that kind of thing. I don’t think most kids will find it too scary, unless it happens to play on particular fears.


There’s a not terribly subtle pro-environment, anti-big-business message central to this book. If that tends toward your own viewpoints, the book provides a way to talk to your kids about some of these issues. If it doesn’t align with your viewpoints, you may find it annoyingly heavy handed. I think my kids will like it. I’ll post an update when they get a chance to read it.

It’s a fun book with just enough creepiness to be exciting but not truly scary. A lot of the emotional issues the kids deal with will be easy for most readers to understand, even if they aren’t getting text messages from trees and trying to save their town from a curse. I’d recommend this for ages 10 and up. I think it’s good for reluctant readers, too.


Deadwood by Kell Andrews
Published in 2012 by Pugalicious Press
Read an ARC supplied by the publisher


  1. This sounds really interesting! Particularly from the standpoint of blending in some science with the magic. Which isn’t too far fetched, because science has explained a lot of things that in the past were attributed to magic. Of course, sometimes things get too far-fetched. 🙂

    Whenever I read a book, especially something like a historical novel, I am curious about what is made up and what is based on fact.

    One of the things that fascinates me about plant biology is how little scientists know about plants compared to animals. I think I recall that there are some plant responses that may work by electrical signalling – maybe thigmatropism? That was not my area of expertise. 🙂 And I also recall something about plant communication possibilities but I think it is early research. Again, scientists know very little about plants so that’s not too surprising.

    I found this interview with the author and she mentions a BBC mini-series that covers some of the related science and a companion book. It might make some interesting related reading!

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