Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reading Through History: The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy (1948)

Michael, a Hungarian prince, has been looking forward to the day when he will turn seven years old. On this day, as has been the tradition of the royal family for generations, Michael will plant an oak tree in Chestry Valley, symbolizing the continued growth of his family tree. By the time Michael does turn seven, however, things are very strange around the castle. World War II is well underway, and the castle is full of Nazi sympathizers who have been led to believe Michael's father, the Prince of Chestry, is a supporter of Nazism as well. Though he is young, Michael is also engaged in an elaborate game of make-believe in which he only shows his true self to his father and his nurse behind closed doors. Still, Michael has great hope for the future, and he decides to take an acorn from a Chestry oak and save it until the war is over and things return to normal. He does not realize, however, the journey this acorn will take before reaching its final destination.

I tried coming into this book cold, without any background information whatsoever, and because of that, I felt that I had been thrown into the middle of a story with no sense of direction. It took me a couple of chapters to get my bearings, and a bit more than that to become invested in the story. Having read the whole story, now, though, I can say that the slow start, introducing Michael through his nurse's account of the night he was born, and slowly building up to the tragic loss of his childhood home to the terrors of war, is the best way to handle this story. Because the main character is so young at the start of the book, it is necessary for the details about the changes in his life in Chestry Valley to be revealed in ways which are appropriate to his age. This might feel slow to an adult reader who already has plenty of context for reading about World War II, but for children, particularly young ones, the time Seredy takes to unfold the circumstances of Michael's changing life is essential to helping them understand the historical events taking place and to feel the impact of those events on the young prince.

Indeed, I would say that this book, and not Number the Stars as I have previously stated, is the book I would most want to use to introduce the topic of the Holocaust to my children. Presenting the story of Prince Michael is a great way to begin a gentle discussion about a topic that will become increasingly more brutal as children age and learn more about it. The book captures both the devastation of war and the power of hope in the face of great loss. It is not a happy story, necessarily, but it is not a tragedy either.

It is also remarkable how soon after the end of the war this book was published. It would be easy to imagine that such a book would have a very narrow and time-specific perspective on events that had just happened at the time of its writing, but on the contrary, this book paints a portrait of the war that is still relevant, believable, and powerful in the year 2017. Thinking about the timing also makes me reflect again on The Singing Tree, where it is suggested that the world would know better, after World War I, than to let another war of that kind happen again. Seredy's voice is not just that of a storyteller, but also that of a witness to history, who allows us to see how the world changed over the first half of the 20th century. Her stories have an immediacy about them that is impossible to achieve in even the most well-researched of contemporary historical fiction novels.

In addition to being an emotional portrayal of the impact of war on the country of Hungary, and on Prince Michael's family in particular, The Chestry Oak also includes a lot about horses, which is a special interest of many children. It also includes a wonderful American family in its supporting cast, which despite some readers' insistence that they reside in Vermont, most likely reside in the Hudson Valley, where Seredy lived, where The Open Gate is set, and where I grew up.

Fans of Kate Seredy will fall instantly in love with this book; those who are new to Seredy's work will fall in love with her writing after reading this book. Either way, it is a beautifully written and engaging story that I wish was more widely available. A definite gem worth owning if you can find it.

2 comments:

  1. I recently read the "Singing Tree" by Kate Seredy and found it to be a very child-appropriate introduction to WW I and to war in general. It was also inspiring to me as an adult with her depiction of how the adults coped with devastating losses. I am glad to see that she wrote a book about WW II as well and will keep my eyes open for it at used book stores! I searched your blog for your review of "the Singing Tree" and couldn't seem to find it. Did you write one? Can you link back to it again? Thanks!

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    1. Sometimes Blogger's search function can be iffy, but you can see my review index by clicking on Book Reviews above. There are several Kate Seredy books. My review of The Singing Tree is here: http://www.readathomemom.com/2015/11/singing-tree.html

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