Under the Mercy Trees

by Heather Newton on February 1, 2016

Praise for Under The Mercy Trees, winner of the 2011 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, SIBA Okra Pick, Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads Selection:

UnderMercyTrees pb c catFrom Publishers Weekly

Newton delivers a stirring debut novel told from the perspectives of four central characters embroiled in a family drama that spans generations and is riddled with defensive secrecy and emotional penury in equal measure. After the disappearance of Leon Owenby, his younger brother and central narrator, Martin, returns to the family’s Willoby County, N.C., mountain town from his life as a destitute writer in New York City to aid in the search for Leon and support his other siblings. The year is 1986; Martin leaves behind his ex-lover, Dennis, and their many friends sick and dying from AIDS. Back home, he must face his painful past, his extended family to whom he is closeted, and his high school girlfriend (who still carries a torch for him). Many months of searching reveal more about the searchers than about Leon; the secrets and resentments in the Owenby family run deep and bubble to the surface unexpectedly. It’s problematic that with so many family issues coming to light, Martin’s sexuality is ignored and remains a secret, but Newton’s use of multiple viewpoints and distinct voices is adept and lively, and helps to fill in the thin premise of Leon’s disappearance. With many novels of this construction, a reader tends to favor one voice over the rest. Not so here; Newton delivers across the board with these characters, who run the gamut from perky to depressive, desperate to schizophrenic. (Jan.) (c) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A melancholy mood suffuses Newton’s nimble debut about a middle-aged man who returns, reluctantly, to his rural North Carolina hometown. Martin Owenby might have never again set foot in Willoby County if it weren’t for the disappearance of his ornery brother, Leon. Now he finds himself in the company of the same damaged souls he fled decades before. Among them: his sister Ivy, who hears voices and sees ghosts; sister Eugenia, who isn’t happy unless she’s causing someone grief; and sister-in-law Bertie, who’s lumbering through a loveless marriage and lackluster life. Martin, who kept his homosexuality a secret throughout his upbringing (and only became openly gay when he entered the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), also reconnects with his high-school sweetheart, Liza, now married with a handsome husband and children of her own. As time passes, family and friends begin to lose hope that Leon is alive. In his eloquent, sorrowful novel, short-story writer Newton gradually reveals dark (and occasionally scandalous) secrets about each member of the Owenby clan, including Leon, who may have had good reason to disappear. Readers of both Pat Conroy, on one hand, and Carson McCullers, on the other, will relish Newton’s flawed characters and piquant portrayal of small-town life. –Allison Block
More Reviews

Told from these four characters’ points of view, this first novel builds nicely toward many revelations and resolutions. Newton is skilled at revealing a world of hurt, and fans of family dramas will appreciate it.” — Library Journal

“A novel that seamlessly, beautifully, twines past with present to show how we can never escape our histories or the deeds—good and bad—that create those histories. The powerful, swelling conclusion of this book raised gooseflesh on my arms and had me near tears. ” — Tom Franklin, New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter 

Under The Mercy Trees will take your breath away…. A remarkable debut by a writer who captures with her words the beauty in the ugly and forgiveness in the unrepentant.” — Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart

Under the Mercy Trees is an amazing novel, driven by mystery, and weaving past and present stories into an intricate and mesmerizing design…. An extraordinary piece of work.” — Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

“A brilliantly crafted novel of a complex family bound by love and hate, hope and regret, a family that must come to terms with each other and in the process, forgive themselves. You’ll find a bit of your own family there and perhaps something of yourself.” — Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow and Prayers for Sale

Under the Mercy Trees offers eloquent evidence that nothing is or ever will be as dramatic as family…. [A] stunningly beautiful book…. Newton has rendered her characters’ world with clear-eyed compassion and in so doing delivered one sweet ache of a novel.” — Tommy Hays, author of The Pleasure Was Mine

Listen to the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church choir sing the song that inspired the title, Hugh Stowell’s From Every Stormy Wind That Blows:

Legal Lessons for North Carolina Teachers

by Heather Newton on August 11, 2015


For many years, I have represented North Carolina educators as they try to perform their jobs with diminishing resources, at times without the support they deserve from administration and their elected representatives. As we enter a new school year, here are my tips to educators for how to protect their employment while providing high-quality education for North Carolina public school students.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly repealed North Carolina’s Career Status law, purporting to strip career status (sometimes called “tenure”) from educators who had already earned it as well as those in the pipeline.  Among the due process rights the new law took away was the right to a hearing before a neutral hearing officer in dismissal and demotion cases.

The good news for teachers who earned career status before the General Assembly’s action is that as of this writing, you still have career status with all the rights career status bestowed under the previous law, thanks to the North Carolina Court of Appeals’ ruling in litigation brought by the North Carolina Association of Educators (“NCAE”).

Whether or not you have career status, there are practical steps you can take to protect your employment.

Toot Your Own Horn

The NC Teacher Evaluation Process rates teachers as developing, proficient, accomplished or distinguished in six categories (“Standards”), such as “Teachers demonstrate leadership” and “Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students.” From a few brief observations during the school year your principal may not know what you have accomplished in a particular category.  To inform him or her, you should proactively upload artifacts documenting your accomplishments to the electronic evaluation system and provide copies to your principal when you meet to discuss your performance.  Examples might include documentation of outside workshops, letters of commendation from parents or proof of community service.

Read The Policy Manuals

When you were hired, Human Resources handed you a stack of orientation materials and probably had you sign that you had received a copy of school and system policies. You never read them.  Read them now. Employment policies are typically in booklet form and Board policies are available on the school system website.  Following policies to the letter becomes particularly important if you have engaged in some kind of protected activity that has irritated your bosses: complaining about a safety issue, asking for FMLA leave, filing a workers’ comp claim.  The best way to avoid retaliation is to be the perfect employee, even if no one else follows the policies.

Limit Your Use of Social Media

Wise teachers do not friend or follow students on Facebook or other social media, and do not complain about their jobs on social media. Assume that anything you post may come to your employer’s attention.

Limit Your Use of Electronic Communication

Text messages, even deleted messages, can be subpoenaed. Do not text with students. If you must text them, such as on a field trip, instruct them after the trip that they should no longer text you. If a student sends you an inappropriate text, report it immediately. Do not leave your cell phone out where a student can send texts from it as a prank. Remember that your employer can read any email you send from your school account and can view your computer search history.

Know Your Rights to Short and Long Term Disability Benefits if a Physical or Mental Condition Prevents You From Being Able to Work Effectively as a Teacher

Physical and mental health issues can affect the job performance of even the best teacher.  If this is true for you, depending on your length of service you may be eligible for long as well as short term disability benefits.  Inquire about these benefits before your health problems lead to disciplinary write-ups.

Exercise Your Right to View Your Personnel File

You have a legal right to examine your personnel file, and should do so periodically to make sure nothing has been placed in it without your knowledge. Administration must notify you in writing if it intends to place a negative document in your personnel file.

Respond to Inaccurate Information in Any Write-up

If your superior places a negative or inaccurate document in your personnel file, or gives you an unfavorable observation or evaluation, promptly exercise your right to place a respectful, professional, rebuttal in your personnel file even if you do not elect to file a grievance.

Do Not Resign Without Advice from an Attorney

Unfortunately, it is common for administrators to call teachers in, present them with allegations and tell them they must resign on the spot or be fired. Do not resign. Repeat, do not resign. Inform administration that you will make a decision about resignation after you have spoken to an attorney.  If resignation turns out to be your best option, a lawyer can help you negotiate resignation terms that may protect your future employability, but a lawyer can do little for you if you have already resigned.

Consider Joining the North Carolina Association of Educators

The North Carolina Association of Educators advocates for educator rights with a goal of providing an equitable, quality education for every child. In addition to working for legislative changes and filing key litigation, NCAE provides a legal services benefit to members who join BEFORE they get in trouble–if you join after employment problems begin, you will not receive this full benefit and your legal expenses may far exceed the cost of NCAE dues.

As a group, teachers are nice people committed to their students, and do not expect to face criticism or problems at work. Challenges can arise, however, with the arrival of a new principal, a teaching assignment that is not a good fit (a gifted kindergarten teacher may not be equipped to teach third grade), or health problems and other life stressors that affect job performance. It pays to be prepared. Thank you for your service, NC Teachers, and have a wonderful school year!

Heather Newton’s law practice in Asheville focuses on employment law for teachers and other workers, ERISA disability claims and small business advice for writers and artists.  She is a past chair of the N.C. Bar Association’s Labor & Employment Law Section and a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators’ legal team.  Contact her at www.heathernewton.net or by phone: (828)254-7177.




The Case Against Compartmentalization in Creating Your Writing Life

January 14, 2015

I’m a writer and a lawyer and a mother and wife and a person of faith. For many years, I believed that the best way to make time for all of these important aspects of my life–especially the writing–was to compartmentalize, setting up rigid mental walls to designate the time and energy I would allot […]

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September Is The Literary-est Month!

September 9, 2014

Two more literary events I hope you’ll join me for in Asheville this month: On September 21st at 3 p.m., I’ll be reading with other members of the Great Smokies Writing Program faculty at Malaprop’s as part of the Writers At Home Series.  Haven’t decided what to read yet. Maybe something from my new novel […]

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Join Me For Back-To-Back Literary Events in the Mountains, September 6-7, 2014

August 18, 2014

I’ll be reading from and discussing Under The Mercy Trees and new work at two events the weekend of September 6th and 7th. On Saturday the 6th, join me at the Mountain Literary Festival in Burnsville for sessions at 10:45 and 2:00 and a book signing at noon.  While you’re there, enjoy readings, workshops and […]

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Listen to “Things Summoned” Courtesy of The Drum–A Literary Magazine for Your Ears

December 18, 2013

My short story, “Things Summoned,” is featured in the December 2013 issue of The Drum.  You can download and listen to me read it here: http://www.drumlitmag.com/index.php?page=contributors&display=816  This story is one of a dozen linked stories in a collection I’ve written, set on the campus of a boarding school in the north Georgia mountains in 1969-70.  […]

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Join Me For a “Such A Character” Workshop Starting February 18, 2014

November 6, 2013

What if I told you this: When my parents married in 1958, my father was French. He signed his name “Paien”  and gave my mother a set of French conversation records she can still quote from today:  “Je m’appelle Jean LeCarpentier mais je ne suis pas carpentier, ha ha ha.”  One Sunday they drove from […]

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Join Me This Summer for “Sustaining Your Writing Life”

May 7, 2013

Join me this summer for “Sustaining Your Writing Life,” a five-week workshop I’ll be teaching for the Great Smokies Writing Program on Monday evenings 6-8:30 starting June 3rd (location TBA). Do you long to write, but just can’t seem to work it into your life? Do your writing resolutions last about as long as your […]

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Twitting. Tweetering. Tweeting–Whatever You Call It!

March 20, 2013

I don’t do Twitter, because I already have too many time-sucks in my life, but here are my responses to Twitter interview questions posed for an Indie book event: 1. Favorite book as a child?  Chronicles of Narnia 2. What are you reading right now?  The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova 3. Why independent bookstores matter? They […]

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On Being an Inconsistent Writer

October 17, 2012

On October 30th, my wonderful long-time writers’ group, the Flatiron Writers, will come to my house to critique the new novel I handed out to them to read a month ago.  I’ll provide food and drink and then sit like the proverbial fly on the wall while they discuss my novel the way a book […]

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