Sunday, March 13, 2016
Reading Through History: The Open Gate by Kate Seredy (1943)
The story opens in New York City in June 1941. The Preston family - Janet, Dick, their parents, and their grandmother, called Gran - live in a fancy apartment with many modern amenities, which make their lives very easy and convenient. When Mr. Preston loses his job at an advertising firm, he decides that the family will take a trip upstate to relax before he begins looking for work. Gran is thrilled by the idea of the trip, since she believes her son and grandchildren have become soft due to city living, and because she not-so-secretly wishes for a place to live with fewer buttons to press. On the way to their destination in Sullivan County, the family decide to pull off onto a side road in Orange County to have lunch. Nearby, Gran spots a sign for an auction and announces that she would prefer to stop there instead. Mr. Preston obliges, and once there, gets the bidding started on a piece of property. To his great surprise, no one else places a bid, and suddenly, the family owns an entire farm! Though Mr. Preston is at first eager to correct his mistake and continue on with his plan, he warms up to the idea, and before long these city slickers are bringing in livestock, making friends with the neighbors, and settling in to live in Orange County permanently.
The most wonderful thing about this book is its characters. The Prestons encounter two very interesting families as they begin their lives as farmers: Mr. Van Keuran, and his cold, stern wife, who are raising their artistic grandson, Andy, after the tragic death of his parents, and Mike and his wife, Linka, Slovakian immigrants whose son has gone into the military in anticipation of the United States entering World War II. These characters not only welcome the Prestons to farm life; they also form close friendships with the family, and in time, are changed for the better by the arrival of the city slickers. Through these friendships, the story slowly shifts from a comic tale of city people fumbling their way through farming, to a testament to the power of friendship, and the value to be found in returning to a slower, simpler way of living where people really spend time getting to know one another.
Another wonderful thing about this book is the way it incorporates history into daily life. Radio reports punctuate the story with news of what is happening in Europe, and eventually what happens in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Most children's books and films about this time period jump right into the action, showing kids what it was like on the front lines, or in Nazi Germany, or in England during night bombings. The fact that this book focuses on the average rural American child's experience of these events makes it easier for kids to relate to World War II, as they can put themselves in the shoes of a child their same age, living in circumstances similar to their own more easily than they can picture themselves as a soldier, resistance leader, or concentration camp survivor.
My favorite thing about this book, though, is the inclusion of references to places I have lived or frequently visited. My husband read this book aloud to me, and when I heard him mispronounce "Shawangunk" (the correct way to say it is "Shon-gum") I nearly fell out of my chair in excitement. I grew up in the hamlet of Wallkill within the Town of Shawangunk, but I have never seen it referenced in fiction before. I got so excited I actually took a picture:
How I made it to adulthood without being aware of Kate Seredy is beyond me, but I hope to visit the Montgomery Library on a future trip home to see her papers, and maybe we'll go track down where she lived as well.
The Open Gate is every bit as well-written - though perhaps a bit more sentimental than - The Good Master or The Singing Tree. It's hard to find, but definitely worth tracking it down on inter-library loan if you can. And now that I have discovered Kate Seredy, I've already got two more of her books on deck to read and review: A Tree for Peter and Chestry Oak.