Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review: A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy (1941)

As a child, Thomas Crandall sees from the window of a train a shantytown, and standing in it, a young boy who smiles and waves at him. The image of the boy makes such an impact on Thomas that it inspires him, as an adult, to become a builder and work to change the living conditions of those who live in such abject poverty. When he has the opportunity to meet Peter Marsh, a builder known for transforming the shantytown into a place called Peter's Landing, Thomas asks him about the shantytown, and the boy. A Tree for Peter is the story Peter Marsh tells him, of how a young boy with a physical disability (Peter) and a mysterious vagrant (King Peter) take the first steps toward transforming a depressed and fearful community into a place of joy and love.

This is a book which is intentionally sentimental and inspirational, so had it not been written by Kate Seredy, and had my husband not asked me to read it aloud to him, I might very well have skipped it. I usually feel that books like this try to manipulate the reader into having particular emotional reactions, rather than allowing the reader to have natural responses, and it irritates me when their happy endings feel too neatly resolved. Unlike contemporary examples of this type of book, however, A Tree for Peter is so well-written that the author does not have to manipulate me into the feelings she would like me to experience. She takes me there by her words - and pictures - alone.

The descriptions of Peter's lonely days in the shantytown alone while his mother works are very vivid, as are the moments he spends with King Peter, the vagrant who shares his name. Peter's problems are very real - at first, they seem nearly insurmountable - and Seredy doesn't take an easy way out in resolving them. Though King Peter is something of a magical figure in Peter's life, his overall influence on the shantytown is only made possible through Peter's hard work and faith in him, and the willingness of the community to set aside their fears and come together. The reader always has the sense that the story will end happily for everyone, but there are enough questions about how it will happen to keep him or her interested in continuing to read.

The illustrations, too, are appealing, at least to my adult sensibilities. As a kid, I probably would have glossed over them, but as an adult, I appreciate the story each one tells, and how full of emotion the figures' faces are. These are works of art, not just decorations for the story, and they help elevate the book a bit more beyond the usual sentimentality of stories of this type.

This slim novella can be read easily in one sitting, and because of its connections to Christmas, and its explicit religious references, it makes a nice read-aloud selection for Advent. It's also a great way to help kids develop empathy for those in difficult financial situations and living conditions, and to encourage them to think of ways they can be more like King Peter in their interactions with others.

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