Book Review: A Key to Treehouse Living

Elliot Reed, A Key to Treehouse Living
Tin House Books 2018
144 pages, paperback, $19.95


This is a coming of age index.


It seems like the literary scene is full of coming of age novels with plucky protagonists facing my terrifying coming of age index. While the the characters in said novels are more diverse than ever, the stories themselves consistently revolve around my handy coming of age index. Luckily, Elliot Reed has produced a version of this familiar tale told like no other in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living.


In A Key to Treehouse Living, Reed tells the coming of age of William Tyce, an orphan who is “raised” by his uncle- raised is a strong word for the role his uncle plays in his life. William is your everyday curious, adolescent boy. He loves exploring nature and takes a river voyage similar to Huckleberry Finn’s. He has a greater fascination with treehouses than most boys, but that’s not what sets his story apart. The form, an index, separates his evolution from the pile of other coming of age novels on your nightstand. Through an alphabetized index, William shares his knowledge on everything he meets whilst raising himself from DADDIES (58) to REVELATION (174) to SANITY (183).


Character development is as vital to Reed’s novel as it is to any other. William’s nonlinear journey of self-discovery reveals a boy with a limitless thirst for knowledge and a no-nonsense world view. He maintains the naivety of a child with self-awareness and wisdom beyond his youth. Through index form, essential to William’s naive-wisdom complex, Reed invites us inside William’s thoughts, where the majority of the novel is spent.


As many reviewers have noted, the generic backdrop of a plot makes this book boring at surface value. I’m not in a hurry to uncover William’s fate. Also, the index form is repetitive, forcing the reader to pick apart each entry to discover the significance or relevance to the story. Taking more time with the entries forced me to look deeper into the themes William explores. He touches on some lofty moral and existential topics like the PHILOSOPHY OF NIHILISM, stating, “Nihilism is a perfectly logical response to an overwhelming and confusing world.” (169) On the other hand, he daydreams of a GYPSY PARACHUTE HOUSE, which “feels like you’re in the middle of a bowl of jelly beans.” (74). Reed’s choice to juxtapose the thought-provoking with the child-like in William’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his life makes even the predictable plot forgivable.


Thanks to the unusual style of A Key to Treehouse Living, this coming of age story is an endearing read. Although the plot is dry in terms of excitement, there is plenty of complex characterization to flood the reader with more than enough of William’s journey to think, laugh, and wonder about.

-Peyton Miller ’20