Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reading Through History: The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy (1939)

A sequel to The Good Master, this book departs from the warmth and safety of its predecessor and meditates instead upon the encroachment of violence into the daily lives of ordinary people. Two years after her summer adventures with cousin Jancsi, Kate has stayed at her uncle's ranch, along with her father, who has found work as a schoolteacher in a nearby community. The family is excited to participate in a traditional Hungarian wedding, a wonderful celebration filled with joy that mirrors many of the adventures experienced by the characters in The Good Master. Unfortunately,  as the wedding comes to an end, the news passes through town that Archduke Francis Ferdinand has been assassinated. Now comes a great war, the effects of which cannot be escaped by anyone, no matter how young or old.

This is a powerful novel filled with emotion which shows the true impact of war on civilians in a way that is accessible to children.  Early in the story, Kate's uncle articulates the story's moving message:

War is like a stampede, Jancsi. A small thing can start it and suddenly the very earth is shaking with fury and people turn into wild things, crushing everything beautiful and sweet, destroying homes, lives, blindly in their mad rush from nowhere to nowhere. (p. 31)

Indeed, as men in their small Hungarian community are called to be soldiers, Kate and Jancsi witness this very stampede, and see their own lives continually reinvented by the changes around them. Though the characters, at heart, remain the same good people they have always been, their circumstances require them to become stronger and bolder than ever before. Kate and Jancsi are sad when Uncle Marton is called to join the army, but because of their hopeful dispositions they never despair, even when it seems that they may have lost their beloved "good master" forever. Kate and Jancsi also maintain their unbiased kindness toward others when they welcome German and Russian prisoners into their home.

What makes this book incredibly poignant, however, is the fact that it was written prior to World War II. The story suggests that World War I has taught the world the price of violence, and that society as a whole will do better in the future. Neither the characters nor the author are yet aware of all the violence yet to come in Nazi Germany, and of how many homes and lives will be destroyed by the second world war. That is the true gift of this novel: the fact that it allows us to see how people saw the world between wars, before they knew all that we know now. In this sense, this book is doubly historical - it was historical fiction at the time it was written, but it can also serve as a historical document for us today.

The Singing Tree is best enjoyed after reading The Good Master, as they complement each other so well, and the first book really provides the foundation that makes the second so emotionally fulfilling. This book provides a rich reading experience that can be enjoyed as part of a history lesson, or on its own as an example of beautiful literature. Because of the subject matter, it is probably best to provide some context about the time period before sharing the book with young readers, but otherwise, it is a perfectly suitable book for ages 8 and up.

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