Critical Reviews of The Ruin and The Bee Tree

A critical review of The Bee Tree

ForeWord Clarion Review

Four Stars (out of Five)

Set in rural southwestern Colorado in 1955, The Bee Tree is the sequel to Kenneth Fenter's 2010 novel, The Ruin, in which readers first met Clifton Kelly, a young boy who runs away from home to escape being maliciously bullied at school and in the community; his year-long solitude in an ancient and previously undiscovered Anasazi cliff dwelling puts him on intimate terms with nature and the spiritual world and teaches him about life-saving survival skills. The Bee Tree takes readers back and forth through time as Cliff, recently retired from his teaching career and attempting to recover from the memory of a school shooting, recalls how his Anasazi experience had equipped him to return to his family's farm a year away, and confront his tormentors with a maturity and spiritual depth far beyond his years.

Teen readers will be able to empathize with Cliff, who not only was ostracized and bullied for being an Anglo child in a predominantly Hispanic school, but was also tormented by an older, emotionally disturbed Anglo youth, Larry Harris. When Cliff returns from his wilderness sojourn, he befriends Hector Rodriguez, the Hispanic bully, but finds himself in a life-and-death conflict with Harris. Now a young soldier injured in the Korean War, Larry Harris is AWOL, armed, and angry, and he seeks to destroy both Cliff and Angelina, whose friendship would grow into love and, later, marriage.

Fenter is a gifted storyteller with an engaging writing style and a seemingly natural sense for effective plot and pacing. Blessed with a good eye for detail, he is able to impart a sense of place and landscape without overwhelming the reader with elaborate descriptions. Although his handling of the information about the background of the area, its farming culture, and bee-keeping can occasionally be a bit didactic, Fenter does engage the reader in the lives and concerns of his characters and the history of the place they call home.

The Bee Tree addresses topics as wide-ranging and timely as racial and cultural relations, religious intolerance, the horrors of war, bullying, mental illness, and illiteracy. Its protagonists thrive and prevail because of their strength and resilience, clear thinking, willingness to take risks, and respect for the human and natural worlds. A hint of magic helps, too. Fenter beautifully describes both the blossoming of teen love based on honor and respect and the love between family members that enables them to surmount their differences.

Fenter's ability to create a real page-turner will be enjoyed by young adult and mature readers alike. Kristine Morris

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A critical review of The Ruin

ForeWord Clarion Review

Four Stars (out of Five)

Kenneth Fenter's The Ruin is part coming-of-age novel, part Robinson Crusoe, part history lesson and wholly deserving of an audience of both adults and teenagers.

The novel follows Clifton Kelly, as an eighth-grade farm boy living in the southwest corner of Colorado in the early 1950s, as well as an adult celebrating his last day of teaching. Cliff's retirement day turns tragic when a fellow teacher is murdered by her own son, who then goes to Cliff's sister school and kills students there. The boy's bloody response to bullying triggers Cliff's memories of being bullied during school.

Cliff didn't shoot his nemesis, Hector Rodriquez, even though he had his rifle in hand after a violent encounter. Instead, he sought refuge in a cave dwelling of ancient Puebloans, the Anasazi. There he learns to survive in the fashion of the First People - making fire from flint, fiber from plants, clothes from pelts, and food from cattails, dandelions, and the game he could bring down with his atlatl, a spear-thrower. From an ancient hunter, who appears in a dream, he learns "Adversity presents unique opportunity, a moment of time in God's wilderness, use the time wisely."

The Ruin encompasses ninety-one chapters, most dealing with Cliff's year in the cave dwelling. Within that narrative, there are flashbacks to his school years, his farm life, and to his relationship with his hard-working, highly religious, and overly strict father. Interspersed are short chapters dealing with the adult Cliff's reactions to the school shooting.

Fenter's research, the breadth of his knowledge about the ancient Puebloans, and his familiarity with farm life are superb. But Fenter's exposition does slow the story. For example, in his narration of Cliff's initial explorations of the cave, Fenter uses several hundred words to describe the youngster's search to find a bee tree. The novel, in fact, is filled with such mini-essays, with Fenter providing lessons about Native American life, bee-keeping, farming, and assorted other subjects. While interesting in its own right, the information sometimes buries the drama of Cliff's saga, including the most emotionally powerful element, Cliff's reconciliation with his father: "Dad, when I left, I was very angry at everyone. I had to get away and figure out how to control that. I also needed time to figure out just who I was and how I wanted to live my life."

Additionally, Fenter fails to tie up completely loose ends in the lives of some characters. For example, readers never learn what happens to George Williamson, a neighbor and Cliff's mentor. And there are only hints of the later successes of Hector Rodriguez, the bully who learns his lesson and reconciles with young Cliff.

The author of the An American Family in Japan series, Fenter is a retired schoolteacher who served in the Springfield, Oregon community, the location of a tragic 1998 school shooting. The Ruin requires patience, but it's both satisfying and interesting, and well worth recommending to a teen reader.  Gary Presley