The Lie Tree


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Book Review

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

On the outside, Faith Sunderly is a typical, well-behaved 14-year-old girl of the Victorian era. Inside, however, she longs to be allowed to read, learn and explore like her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist.

Faith and her family, including her younger brother, Howard; her mother, Myrtle; and her Uncle Miles, are forced to leave London with her father due to a scandal surrounding the publication of her father’s recent findings. The reverend takes a position on the small island of Vane in order to help with an archeological dig. When Faith arrives at their new home, Jane Vellet, the housekeeper, greets her. Faith’s bedroom is the smallest, but she is happy as it is by the servants’ staircase so she can hear their gossip and even sneak out at night.

The following day, Faith goes out to play with Howard and is surprised to see a stranger wandering near the Folly, an old tower where her father has put some of his specimens. Although Mrs. Vellet assures the reverend that the stranger was probably one of the local men using the easiest path to the beach, the reverend insists he will set rabbit traps to stop trespassers.

Later that day, Dr. Jacklers escorts the reverend and his family to the excavation site. He introduces them to other members of the team: Mr. Clay, the island’s curate; Mr. Lambent, who owns the land; and Ben Crock, the foreman. At tea that afternoon, Faith and her mother meet Mrs. Lambent, who frequently observes the work at the site.

That night, a boy is injured in one of the reverend’s rabbit traps. At the time, her father is in his study and has demanded that he not be disturbed. Faith enters her father’s study to ask if they might call a doctor. She is terrified to find him in what appears to be a drugged state. He orders her to leave. She lies and tells her mother that he said they would pay for a doctor to tend to the boy.

The following day, Faith and her mother visit the village and are distressed when the shopkeepers snub them. Her mother stops by the church to see if Mr. Clay has heard anything. Faith is ushered away by his son, Paul, a boy about her age, so that the adults may talk privately. Paul and Faith spar verbally as he is a friend of the boy who was hurt in her father’s trap.

When she and her mother return home, they find the reverend and Uncle Miles have been banned from the excavation site. News that the reverend has been falsifying his archeological findings has reached Vane, and the family is being ostracized. Meanwhile, the reverend has discovered a fingerprint on one of his letters. Furious, he accuses the maid of spying on him and fires her.

That night, Faith admits that she, not the maid, read the letter. Her father scolds and humiliates her but then asks for her help. She helps him take a rowboat out to a cave where he deposits a cloth-shrouded pot from the Folly. When they return home, he sends her to bed and orders her to keep their secret.

When Mrs. Vellet discovers that the reverend’s boots and overcoat are missing in the morning, the house is searched. Faith fears he may have gotten caught in one of the traps. She sees his body draped over the limb of a tree, halfway down the side of a cliff. Although distressed, her mother has the forethought to have Faith hide the reverend’s letters. Faith believes someone murdered her father but no one pays attention to her claim. Myrtle tries to have her husband’s body buried in the churchyard, but it is rumored that the reverend committed suicide, so a full inquiry must be made.

Furious at the callousness of the townspeople, Faith returns home. In her room, she reads through her father’s journal. She learns the plant they hid is a “Mendacity Tree.” A naturalist named Winterbourne told the reverend of its powers. If you speak a lie to it and then circulate the untruth widely, it bears fruit. The greater the lie and the more people who believe it, the bigger the fruit grows. When eaten, the fruit has the ability to grant secret knowledge close to a person’s heart.

The reverend visited Winterbourne in jail to learn the location of the plant and promised to try and have Winterbourne released, but he died of malaria in his cell. The reverend found the Mendacity Tree and experimented by telling it a small lie about his health. When others believed it, the tree sprouted a small fruit that when eaten, revealed the reverend’s future malady of gout. Convinced of its power, the reverend longed to know the truth about Creation, so he knew his next lie would have to be fantastical. He began falsifying his fossils.

After reading the journal, Faith believes her father was murdered for the Mendacity Tree. She sneaks out of the house and finds the tree in the cave. She whispers the lie that her father’s ghost haunts the house, seeking revenge on those who wronged him. She returns to the house and sets up several tricks to create the illusion of a ghost that the servants soon believe.

Faith discovers Paul Clay lurking on the stairs and learns he was dared by his friends to snatch a lock of the reverend’s hair, as the whole island now believes his ghost haunts the house. Faith tells Paul she suspects her father had gone to meet someone the night he died because he took a pistol. Paul agrees to help her find clues in exchange for a lock of her father’s hair.

Knowing that her lie has spread, Faith returns to the cave and finds the plant thriving and bearing a tiny fruit. Eating it, Faith has a strange vision that suggests her Uncle Miles orchestrated their move to Vane in the hopes that he, too, might be respected by the archeologists. The dream also hints that Faith was correct in believing her father was murdered.

She then tells the tree that the leaders of the excavation are really seeking buried treasure. She leaves fake clues to propagate her lie. In order that she might spy on the site, she asks the men if she might sketch some of their findings for scientific journals. She soon learns that villagers are raiding the site at night, looking for treasure. Excited, she returns to find the tree has outgrown its pot, and its vines are spreading across the cave. This time, the fruit shows her a strange vision of museum dinosaurs coming to life and attacking the patrons, including herself.

Faith wakes up and realizes she has walked in her sleep. Paul had dared her to come to a ratting, and she, still under the influence of the fruit, goes to the barbaric event. On her way home, two local boys question her about the treasure. Pretending to be crazy, she implies Mr. Lambert gave a box to a woman. They suggest it was Miss Hunter, the postmistress. Since Miss Hunter had gossiped about her father, Faith agrees. She runs from the boys and returns to the tree, which has grown even bigger. She tells the tree that Mr. Lambert gave the treasure to Miss Hunter. The next day, villagers burn Miss Hunter’s home, looking for the treasure.

Faith discovers her Uncle Miles ransacking her father’s study. Confronted, he claims he has found them a benefactor on the island who will pay generously for the reverend’s papers and plants. Faith refuses to give them up, and Miles attacks Faith until her mother fights him away. Miles washes his hands of their family. In a fit of despair, her mother explains how they are now ruined. The inquest is in the morning and will prove the reverend committed suicide, the family is destitute, and as a woman, she has no hopes of securing a future for them.

Faith returns to the tree, which now inhabits the entire cave and is surprised to find that Paul has followed her there. She decides to trust him, as she must eat its fruit once more. She sees her father visiting Winterbourne in his jail cell and learns her father never intended to free him. He used him to find the Mendacity Tree. When she wakes from the vision, she has Paul take her to the church so she can read the parish registry. In it she discovers that Winterbourne’s widow married Mr. Lambent. She suspects Mrs. Lambent of killing her father in revenge for her husband’s death.

The following day, Faith confronts Mrs. Lambent with her suspicions that she and Mr. Lambent killed her father. Faith is shocked when Mrs. Lambent calls for Mr. Crock, the site foreman. He was the Winterbournes’ trusted foreman and is indebted to his widow. Faith flees home to warn her family they must leave before Mr. Crock finds them. Her family escapes, but Faith is captured by Mr. Crock. He forces Faith to take him and Mrs. Lambent to the tree.

In the cave, Faith shoots Mr. Crock with her father’s pistol and sets the tree on fire, in order to escape. Mrs. Lambent pursues her so Faith pretends she has the tree’s last fruit. Hoping only to distract her, Faith throws a pebble over the cliff. Even after Faith admits she is lying, Mrs. Lambent willingly jumps after it to her death.

With the reverend’s death now ruled a murder, the family is free to bury him and go back to London. Faith leaves Vane, determined to become a naturalist in her own right, even though it will shake the norms of Victorian society.

Christian Beliefs

Erasmus Sunderly is a priest with hidden doubts about the Bible’s account of Creation ever since Darwin published his theory of evolution. His faith in God has been thrown into question. His obsession to learn the truth leads him to lie, cheat and even cause a man’s death to malaria in order to gain possession of the Mendacity Tree. He hopes the fruit will open his mind to the absolute truth about the world’s creation. He and Mr. Crock believe the tree may actually be the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. Faith argues that the fruit does not give real knowledge, more of what one already suspects.

Faith occasionally thinks about her upcoming confirmation into the church, knowing the ceremony will make her an adult in the eyes of the church and God. She believes God will judge her harshly for the devious things she has done in her quest for knowledge.

Mr. Clay argues in defense of the Bible’s version of Creation, explaining the extinction of the dinosaurs through the story of the Flood. He claims that fossils cannot possibly be as old as some say because the Bible tells us the world is only 6,000 years old. Some of the men look embarrassed that he would believe such a thing.

Faith helps her brother say his prayers before bed. When he is afraid that a ghost haunts the house, she tells him to write out his Scripture to scare the ghost away. She thinks about the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

One of the servants promises to keep the truth of where the reverend’s body was found a secret, but the servant will not swear to a lie on the Bible. Suicide is considered a mortal sin; until an inquest is made, the reverend is not allowed to be buried within the churchyard.

Other Belief Systems

The idea of the Bible’s version of Creation begins with the words, “Once upon a time,” making a reference to the first lines of a fairy tale. One of the “discoveries” the reverend created to prove his lie was that of a Nephilim, a creature mentioned in Genesis as the product of human and angelic relations. He attached remnants of wings to the shoulder of a human skeleton.

Uncle Miles explains that the locals call the sound of the wind howling through nearby sea caves the Great Black Bull. They believe it comes up from the bowels of the earth on stormy nights. The book explores the early effects of Darwin’s theory of evolution on Victorian society. Faith sees the scientists who once argued forcibly for their opinions now speaking with fear.

Mrs. Vellet says that the keeping of black crêpe, the material used for mourning clothes, is considered bad luck. Other superstitions include that mirrors must be covered or the dead’s soul will get trapped in it. It also prevents the living from the seeing the dead person and pulling them into death as well. A mirror can steal your soul.

Faith’s first lie is that her father’s ghost seeks revenge on those who murdered him. She lights his pipe so his unused library smells of it. She rearranges the ropes on the bells that summon the servants so that when she rings her own, it jingles the bell in her father’s room. The servants and townspeople soon believe her lie as does her brother.

When Howard is convinced the ghost is hunting him because he is bad, Faith breaks down and tells him it is her fault the ghost is coming. She tells Howard she is going to hell because she is evil. Even though she knows it is not true, Faith thinks God has her father’s face. She concludes that if her father does not know any of her transgressions, then God does not know them either.

A man says they should bury the reverend with a sharpened stick to keep his ghost underground. A maid thinks she is cursed by the reverend’s ghost and so refuses to leave the church. A reference is made to Tarot cards being used to tell fortunes.

Authority Roles

Faith idolizes her cold and distant father. She longs to prove herself worthy of his love. When she admits she has read his private letters, he berates her. He tells her if a girl is not good, she is nothing and that a girl will always be a burden to her family. She can never pay back the debt she owes to her parents.

Faith’s relationship with her mother is distant and cold. Faith loathes the position in which society places women and longs to do more than keep a home and flirt with men, as her mother does. She learns her mother uses whatever skills society allows in order to save her family. Eventually, her mother comes to quietly celebrate Faith’s fierce independence and drive.

Profanity & Violence

The Lord’s name is used with the word good. God’s name is used with willing. The word h— is also used.

A boy’s leg is wounded in a rabbit trap. It bleeds profusely. Dr. Jacklers explains how the trap cut into the muscle in the boy’s calf. Paul shows Faith a picture of a murdered woman. The blood in the black-and-white photo is painted red where her body had been cut open from her solar plexus to her belly. The murderer stands over her with a knife.

Dr. Jacklers explains that the reverend’s body had two cracked ribs, a wound on his forehead and a great bump to the back of his head. In Faith’s first vision, after eating the Mendacity Tree’s fruit, she sees a two-dimensional paper version of her father being picked up by a giant hand. It crushes his head between its fingers then drags him away. In the second vision, dinosaurs in a museum come to life and attack visitors, dragging them into water or biting off their heads. A giant winged dinosaur bites her neck. She hears the bones breaking before waking up.

Faith attends a ratting where a Jack Russell terrier is thrown into a pen filled with rats. The sport is to see how many rats the dog can kill in a minute. Under the influence of the fruit, Faith is mesmerized as the dog bites and shakes its prey. She wants to see more blood. Paul tells her he vomited at his first ratting when a rat bit out a dog’s eye. On his dare, Faith pulls a rat out from a bag of rats and gets bitten.

As her lies spread, the townspeople begin to act irrationally. They set fire to the postmistress’s house so that they can “help” her remove her belongings when in reality, they are stealing them and looking for the treasure they believe she is hiding.

Uncle Miles grabs Faith roughly and drags her into the hallway in an effort to force her into giving him her father’s papers. Faith lashes out and hits him. Before he can punch her in return, her mother hits Uncle Miles in the neck with a poker. She threatens to hit him again if he continues to hurt Faith.

Faith realizes that it had been no accident when the chain broke that supported a basket in which she and Howard were being lowered into a cave. Mr. Crock had expected her father to be lowered first and had cut the chain per Mrs. Lambent’s instructions. If Mr. Crock had not insisted extra ropes be tied to the basket, she and her brother would have been killed.

When Faith confronts Mrs. Lambent and Mr. Crock with their crimes, Mr. Crock throws Dr. Jacklers into the cave because he is a witness. The fall breaks his leg. Faith then throws pieces of leaves from the plant onto Mrs. Lambent’s clothes. The leaves spark into flames in the sunlight, causing enough of a distraction that Faith can run away.

Mr. Crock and his men pelt a carriage with rocks, trying to stop Faith and her family from fleeing. They set up an explosive device so the carriage will be unable to cross over the water, but Faith is able to douse the fuse. Mr. Crock captures Faith and forces her to show him and Mrs. Lambent the tree.

Faith shoots Mr. Crock, wounding him enough that he lets her go. Faith sets the plant on fire in order to escape the cave. The plant vines move and tighten around her legs in an effort to keep Faith from leaving. She uses her pocket mirror to reflect a shaft of sunlight onto the leaves, causing them to burst into flame.

Faith claims the pebble she holds in her hand is the last fruit of the Mendacity Tree. She throws it over a cliff. Mrs. Lambent jumps after it to her death.

Sexual Content

Faith is surprised to discover that Mrs. Vellet and Miss Hunter are in a relationship that she does not quite understand.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Tobacco: The Reverend Sunderly and other gentlemen smoke pipes.

Drugs: Laudanum, an opiate, is used to assuage a boy’s pain after his leg is caught in a rabbit trap. The fruit of the Mendacity Tree gives visions of some kind of truth to the person who eats it.

Lying: Even before encountering the Mendacity Tree, Faith regularly lies and/or eavesdropps so that she can learn things girls are not allowed to learn. The Mendacity Tree is somehow able to gain life when a person tells it a lie and gets others to believe it. The more lies that are told, the bigger the plant grows. It is suggested that the reason the plant grows so large for Faith, and not her father, is because Faith receives satisfaction from telling the lies because they harm people who had hurt her family.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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