In The Blazing Tree Michael Merrick is sent to Hancock Shaker Village to investigate a string of arson fires, large and small; he also solves two murders. In Mary Jo Adamson's The Blazing Tree, Michael Merrick, Police News reported for the Boston Independent, is sent by the owner of the newspaper, Jasper Quincey, to investigate a series of fires at Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires.
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Michael doesn't want to go but he feels he is beholden to Jasper for getting him out of a fix.
Michael comes from a privileged family. He was a student at Harvard. However, his father dies and Michael feels that Samuel Grant, his father's business partner, does not share the company's assets fairly. Michael's mother is strapped, financially, and under great stress.
One day, Michael comes home at dawn, after a night of carousing with his friends, to find his family home in ashes and his mother and sister dead. He goes into a serious depression, and becomes addicted to opium. As time passes, he needs more and more opium; he goes through his inheritance and abandons his friends. He no longer has a bright future.
One day, after a drug-induced stupor, Michael finds himself in a clean, bare room on a back street. The landlady, Mrs. Parker, says he was brought there in a hansom cab; the driver gave her an envelope with money and a note regarding his care. Every week, another driver brings more money. As Michael recovers, a note arrives requesting him to call on the editor of the Independent. He is given the job of police reporter. He does not know who his benefactor is, but assumes that it is the owner of the paper, Jasper Quincey.
Some time later, a messenger comes to say that Quincey wants to speak to him. Quincey wants Michael to investigate a series of fires at the Hancock Shaker Village; a man died in one of those fires. Since the Shakers will not speak to outsiders, Quincey wants Michael to pretend that he wants to join the community so that he can be there, on site, and get whatever inside information is available. Michael absolutely does not want to go, but believes that Quincey is responsible for his rehabilitation and, therefore, that he is beholden to Quincey; also, Michael believes that his job could be in jeopardy if he refuses. Although he is hesitant, Michael is given no opportunity to refuse; the next day he finds himself in a coach, driven by Philemon Wells, a trustee of Hancock Shaker Village, on the way to the Shakers.
During the long, four-day drive, Michael learns much from Philemon about the history, traditions and mores of the Shakers.
According to Philemon, the sect was started by Mother Ann Lee, a poor British woman imprisoned for her beliefs. Having lived in a filthy slum, with undrinkable water [because of human waste running down a ditch in the middle of the road and seeping into wells], overworked and with not enough to eat, she was exhausted and lost four children. She preached that “…in order to be perfect we had to overcome our carnal nature, that we must not join our bodies for self gratification, even in marriage.” In prison, she had a vision of the perfect community. After leaving prison, in the 1770's, she came to America with a few followers, supported by her brother, who “…dreamt of a flourishing tree in a new land.”
Also according to Philemon, Michael's father, Gilbert Merrick, was very helpful to the Shaker's seed business. Michael feels that, perhaps, that is the reason he was helped.
The Shakers believe in doing things “right”, in keeping things that are useful, and in not being wasteful. For example, the Shakers use only one horse to pull their wagons. “We make our wagons so they're balanced right. Then one horse is all that's needed. Be wasteful to use two.”
Michael is also impressed by the Shaker temperament, which is a combination of hard-nosed business acumen and compassion. During the four-day trip, they make several stops to sell Shaker wares. At one stop, Michael notices that Philemon will not succumb to bargaining. The price is the price. However, after all the wares are sold, Philemon speaks to an extremely poor, badly disfigured woman [Michael things she's been beaten], with a child who has an earache. Philemon gives the woman an elixir that he says will help. Further, he will take no money, telling the woman that he hopes she will do him the favor of telling him, on his next trip, if it's been beneficial, so that he can tell others. Obviously, he is trying to give the woman the elixir without embarrassing her.
As they approach Hancock Shaker Village, they stop at a farm where Michael trades Shaker Cider for a dog. Shakers disapprove of having dogs because they feel that they are not useful. However, Michael feels that, given the many fires, a dog will be useful because it will bark. They name the dog Hallelujah.
Among the members of the community at Hancock are four trustees [including Samuel Grant], four elders, a deacon, a deaconess, a veterinarian, a blacksmith, two nurses, a kitchen overseer, and the brother in charge of the Boys House. Several children were taken in by the community including Giles Grant [son of Samuel] who has what we now know to be Tourette's Syndrome, but which was not understood then, Crispin, who is lame and unable to speak, and Mercy.
As in all communities in which people live closely together, there is sometimes strife. Jacob, one of the four elders, is the non-identical twin brother of Esau, one of the deacons. However, Jacob is better looking and Esau feels that he has been the favored one all his life. Giles Grant's outbursts trouble some members of the community, although the try to understand him. Brother Zebediah, who died in the fire, was “up in years”, “crotchety” and “sharp tongued”. Michael believes, for a time, that his death in the fire might have been intentional.
One of these differences is, finally, shown to be the motive for the fires. Jacob was about to get a huge promotion, to the Central Ministry. This was unendurable to Esau. “Throughout his life he'd been eclipsed by his twin. Jacob was stronger, handsomer, more likable. He won, always, without being aware that his brother was competing.” Esau feels that if the community were discredited by the fires, Jacob will not be chosen.
After discovering the person who started the fires, Michael also discovers the identity of his benefactor. Samuel Grant, feeling guilty for cheating Michael's mother, helped Michael as a means of atonement.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the book because it is an exciting story, is a page-turner, and because it tells many of the Shaker traditions.
Best scene in story:
SCENE In my favorite scene Michael discovers that, instead of Jasper Quincy [owner of the Boston Independent] as he had thought, Samuel Grant [a former Boston businessman, former business partner of Michael's father, and current Trustee of Hancock Shaker Village] was his benefactor. Grant's conscience was bothering him because he had swindled Michael's family after Michael's father died, and he was trying to make recompense.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Michael Merrick because he is honest and compassionate.