My Mostly Happy Life – Shelly Reuben


A beautiful life story, told from the perspective of a tree. Not just any tree, but a Climbing Tree, one grown and nurtured and shaped so that it, in turn, can help people grow and can nurture them in its branches. When deprived of this essential human contact, the trees begin to wither and die. It is a realistic story, there is conflict between some of the characters, yet is inspiring and hopeful.

Main Characters:

The Climbing Tree: The protagonist, through whose eyes we see all the action. Our tree was the first to be grown in the park, so has seen it all!

Samuel Swerling: Born into a city slum in 1911, as a young man he had never seen a tree, but this inventive genius was able in later years to buy a large plot of land in the city, and make it an oasis of peace and solitude.

Alonso Hannah: The one-armed arborist, who begins a family tradition of maintaining the park.

Jarvis Larchmont: A mean bully as a young child, he grows up to deliver on his potential as a mean man, and tries to destroy the park when promoted to a bureaucratic role in the city.

Timothy Wong: The teenager who becomes the unlikely hero.

Minor Characters:

The extended Swerling family: Way too many to mention – two Swerling brothers and their wives had eight kids, who with THEIR spouses went on to have twenty-three grandchildren.

Winston the Ferret: Responsible for getting Esther to meet her husband, and for getting nearly everyone to fall in love with him (the ferret, not the husband!).


This is a gentle tree, wanting nothing more than to have kids scramble around in its branches, and adults to rest beneath its spreading arms. The tree, along with its sisters, has been shaped (the term is arborsculpture, or tree-shaping) to allow people to access the very heart of it.

In our story, our tree is a feisty and youthful eighty years old, and has seen generations of people pass by, often of the same family. She is situated in Samuel Swerling Park, a haven of serenity in the bustling city.

The park is named after its founder, a hugely successful inventor who wanted to give back some of his fortune.

The tree watches, and watches over, the denizens of her park, and gives us beautifully-crafted insights into their history, and often their character, for it is what people do when they think no-one is watching that gives a real clue to their true identity.

We see Samuel as a young man, hiring his first arborist in the person of Alonso Hannah, and then we see the meeting and wooing by Alonso of Pepita. We meet Samuel playing games with his beloved grand-daughter Esther, as they people-watch. We see the cowardly and nasty Jarvis, who is spiteful and likes to cause misery, for the sake of it.

Over the course of a century or so, we get the story of Samuel Swerling, his family, their various successes and failures, and of those who want to destroy and tear down everything beautiful that has been created. The main narrative gives a little about Samuel’s early life, but the park was “born” just before World War Two, when Sam purchased some derelict houses, and cleverly had them destroyed and moved so that he and Alonso could build the park.

From there, the tale flows, and we live the lives of post-war America. It comes across as a time of innocence, of community spirit, and of something at once intangible but yet everyone can recognise. There is a general sense of respect and civility, of courtships and happy childhoods.

Through the tree’s story, we see as the children grow up to have children of their own, to see the battles they fight to protect all that they love, and the importance of values and of family. The story culminates on the night of a terrible storm, and we watch as the park and the trees become a battleground between the malicious bureaucrat Jarvis Larchmot and his band of eco-terrorists, and the extended Swerlings, with the very existence of the park at stake.

What I Liked:

  • The characterisation – simple but insightful.
  • The illustrations were superb.
  • The writing was full of emotion, and evokes what seems a simpler, more honest time.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The pace was a little languid (what can you expect from a tree, after all?!), but this is only a small gripe.


The tree narrates a heart-warming and immensely pleasurable tale. It is a unique insight, and from our viewpoint in the branches we touch a lot of lives. It is a truly delightful read, most definitely for a sunny day in a park, and I really enjoyed it. The illustrations are extremely well-done, and echoes the style of books of the time. It is a suitable read for all ages, and I thoroughly recommend it.


I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest and objective review.


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