The parable of the Prodigal Son endures because it is comforting to know that no matter how messy life becomes, there can be a happy ever after. Barry Sankey gives the message a new twist in Seven Cuts of Wood, casting himself as the wayward traveler.
Sankey tells the tale of a young boy moving from the safety and comfort of his family, to running with a dangerous crowd and getting shot as he roamed the streets of suburban Chicago in the 1960s and ‘70s, to finding his path later in life mentoring kids to stay out of trouble. What makes this narrative unique is the interspersing of Bible verses and long form poetry into the narrative.
Sankey uses the metaphor of trees throughout to explain the different characters and phases in his life: Oaks represent men who provided strength and solid example; Fruit trees are the mothers who nurtured, and pines, on the edge of the tree line, represent the edge between good and bad choices. He even evokes the outbreak of Dutch elm disease in his hometown of Maywood, Ill., a mostly black community, to symbolize how the stripping of the comforting shade trees and storybook appearance exposes the racial tension of the late 1960s.
Sankey has a mostly good grasp of the device and some of his imagery is lovely: “The roots we never see supply each of us with many branches.” But the writing can become strained: “Contained in every good tree is the opportunity of building material.”
The larger problem, though, is that Sankey tries to do too much. The focus on trees, Bible verse, poetry, plus recitations of people and events that are confusing and hard to follow, ultimately becomes overwhelming. Within the jumble is probably a solid tale of struggle and salvation, but it gets lost in the mix.
Readers will want to understand the turbulent time and how one man found his way. But — using Sankey’s own metaphor — there needs to be some pruning before the potential for an inspiring story is realized.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.