Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reading Through History: The White Stag by Kate Seredy (1937)

The 1938 Newbery Medal winner, The White Stag, is a slim novel with many illustrations. In short, descriptive chapters, it relates the story of the Huns and Magyars making their way to their "promised land" where they will eventually settle the country of Hungary. Each chapter represents a new generation, beginning with Nimrod, and ending with the birth and rise to power of Attila the Hun. Magical elements appear throughout the story, in the form of a white stag said to be sent by the god Hadur, a young blind man who sees the future, and moonmaidens who become the wives of some of the characters. The story is based on the author's father's favorite folktale about the history of Hungary, and is not intended as a factual presentation of events.

When I was planning my historical fiction reading project, I opted not to include The White Stag, mostly because it spans such a long period of time that it would be hard to fit it into my timeline, but also because it involves magic, and I am focusing on realistic novels. However, after learning that the author, Kate Seredy, was living in Montgomery, NY (not far from my hometown) when she wrote this book, I decided I absolutely had to read it. I wound up reading the entire thing aloud to my husband and toddler in a single sitting, and despite not knowing anything about the Huns, I was completely drawn into the story and eager for each new turn of events.

Seredy's writing is a treat unto itself. She has a wonderful way of getting inside the minds and hearts of her characters to guess at what might have motivated their behaviors and attitudes. Though most of us know Attila the Hun as a fearsome conqueror, Seredy takes the time to explore why this might have been, and shows how the peaceful attitudes of his forebears devolved, over time, into violence. There are a ton of negative reviews on Goodreads complaining that this portrayal of Attila is somehow offensive, or "wrong" but those reviewers really seem to be missing the point. This is a mythical tale, not a textbook, and speculating about what could have happened is half the fun of reading and writing historical fiction. As with Konigsburg's The Second Mrs. Gioconda, this is a book to enjoy in conjunction with learning about the time period, as it is knowledge of the historical events that enriches the reading experience.

Though the subject matter might be unfamiliar to kids, the layout of this book is very appealing, with a full-page illustration every 2-3 pages. If it is presented to them as an exciting epic rather than a boring old award winner, I would think boys, especially, will happily allow themselves to be sucked into the story. Though the book is short, like a chapter book, I would put it in the same category as Call it Courage and recommend it to older elementary readers. It's also a wonderful read-aloud, and even reading just one chapter aloud to a group is likely to grab their interest. Don't let the negative reviews on the Internet fool you - this is a great book, and it holds up just fine nearly 80 years after it was first published.

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