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Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Giving Tree Week: Post #5 by Andrew Butler

Today's post is by my most excellent friend and coworker, Andrew Butler.  A conversation with him is what first inspired The Giving Tree Week.  He has since given me 3 wildly different (and impeccably written) posts on the book.  Here's his latest:


The Giving Tree holds a very special place in my heart and I possess strong and vocal opinions about the book.

The only problem is: I'm not altogether certain what that place or those opinions are.

I had a conversation with our beloved blog curator to that extent a couple months ago.  She informed me of her intentions on running a commentary on The Giving Tree - a more divisive book than I previously realized (but more on that shortly) - and asked if I might like to partake as I figure out my thoughts on it.  Since then, I have rewarded her faith and hospitality by trying her patience with rambling rants on tangential topics like Nietzchean ethics and my theory of the modern picture book (things I - aside from the five minutes I spent scouring Wikipedia - know nothing about) before concluding - with something akin to a verbal should shrug that I have no clue.

Deadlines, however, have a certain way of expediting the soul-searching process.  So alas, one last attempt:

The logical place to start, I suppose, is the beginning - where with the help of an uneventful childhood anrepressed memories, I can't really remember a time before The Giving Tree.  I don't even recall it being read to me, to be honest.  Maybe it wasn't.  But whatever happened, I gleaned enough of it in my formative years for the Tree to become a pillar of my budding adult conceptualization of what it means to be Good.  It's easy for that to happen.  The Giving Tree's underlying principle slides right into place with the Judeo-Christian-influenced ethical worldview we here in America - let alone Appalachia, where I was raised - impress upon our children.  The Tree displays behavior typically reserved for not-quite-of-this-plane religious figures.  Change the setting and the genera around a little bit and the basic gist of the story wouldn't feel out of place in the Gospels or the Dhammapada.  Love, sharing, devotion, generosity, selflessness - it's all in here in hyper-condensed form.

In my bubble of intellectual non-creativity, it never occurred to me that anyone could think differently.  I was not prepared for my first encounter with a Giving Tree dissenter.  I was in high school.  I was eating Japanese food with some friends.  The subject of The Giving Tree came up.  I expected a round of polite praise befitting any such irreproachable thing, like George Washington or the Polio vaccine, before moving on to the next topic.  Instead, the unthinkable happened - someone didn't like it.

I still recall the smirk he had on his face as he argued the Tree basically ruined her life for some ungrateful dolt. (Actually, I'm pretty sure I've retroactively added the smirk in my memory, but I like the ad hominem insinuation, so I keep it.) The notion caught me unawares.  I was baffled.  To think it was not one of the greatest works of the 20th century is one thing - I can handle disagreements of degree.  But to hold a negative opinion of it?  Downright brazen.  With no clue what to say, I resorted to the only maneuver at my disposal - I shrugged my shoulders and let the conversation move on.  I certainly didn't move on, though.  A challenge had been issued to a fundamental notion of my worldview (albeit in the indirect form of a book critique).  I was not about to let that rest.

But since that encounter, I've learned my friend was no anomaly.  It's a fairly common opinion, in fact.  Even among the half-dozen or so people I asked in preparation of writing this, it was hard to find someone who didn't express at least some trepidation about the Tree getting the raw end of a pretty crummy deal.  People much smarter than me have - or, in the case of many dead ethicists, would have - accused the Tree of embodying slave morality - a misplaced and unsustainable servile worldview.  All of this bugged me.

For the sake of rhetorical honesty, here's precisely why it bugged me: They were right.  About all of it.  The Tree's morality certainly seems misplaced - the Boy she holds so unconditionally dear sure comes off like a brat.  And one just needs to flip back and forth between the first and last pages to see the unsustainability of her actions.  Not only that, but in the years leading up to the Boy's return as an old man - the majority of the story, if you map it out on a timeline - the Tree was "happy...but not really."  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  Her ultimate happiness rests on the relative arbitrary condition that the boy bothers to come back at all.  He returns in the story, of course, per authorial prerogative to give the story completion and - in some grander sense, I suppose - justify and reward the Tree for her actions.  But in the real life alternative, does he make the same trip back?  Who knows.  I wouldn't bet on it.

What, then, is the redeeming factor?  In a way, I reckon the fact that it's a book.  (Yes, it sounds as dumb to me as it does to you, but bear with me...)

Books - fiction books, at least - are good for one major thing: the interplay of what is real and what can be imagined.  Most clasically, this is conceived as escapism. Page-turning spy thrillers and grand fantasy epics and everything else that lets a person relax, forget about everything, and have a damn good time before going about his or her daily business again.  It's pretty slanted toward the "What can be imagined" end of the spectrum, and rightfully so.  It's their aim and purpose to entertain.

One of the corner stones of good literature, however, is a certain deftness in recognizing and capitalizing on this interplay.  It's what allows a truly great book to stick in our minds long after we're finished reading - the real world won't let us forget it.  We recognize our own struggles and hopes and fears withing the pages, just as we feel the weight and immediacy of the book in our everyday lives.

Silverstein gives us a Tree that behaves like no one we know.  People just don't act like that in real life.  The desire of selflessness, generosity, and humility must coexist with the realities of our selfishness, anger, and anxiety within the human condition.  It all makes for one big paradoxical mess. As such, having and sticking to a code as clear and simple as the Tree's is firmly within the realm of the supererogatory.  And she's happy about it.

So how does an impossible Tree come back around into our realities?  I'm not exactly sure.  But there's an immediacy to the Tree's reunion with the Boy that goes far beyond the simple guy getting the girl or bad guy getting brought to justice.  Whatever is going on in the closing pages as the Boy rests on the blissful remains of the old Tree - that much is real.  I suppose that's because it offers up a view of what the world might be in some idyllic near-future if we can just figure a few things out.  Put simply - daydreaming.  A brief peek at the transcendent never hurt anyone.

Until then, though, it makes for a rather ineffective guide at living life.  Even the most faithful proponents like me eventually come to terms with its unattainable ideal.  But it is something you have to learn as one grows up.  I think the book makes sense to children.  It's no coincidence The Giving Tree remains one of the most iconic picture books ever written.  It couldn't exist in any other form.  The underlying idea is too simple for exposition (read: this post).  It's the feelings we have reading it as adults now that we know better that are complex.  But in the meantime, the Tree is happy, I'm happy the Tree is happy, and there is reason to hope the child that is reading it with me might never have to learn otherwise.

Am I now any closer to figuring out The Giving Tree for myself?  Nope.  Not at all.  So here's my real response:

It's the future.  I've had my first child, and she's now old enough to have me read The Giving Tree to her for the first time.  I already know some of what will happen - I will tear up by the first "And the tree was happy" refrain, building up to a blubbering, incomprehensible mess by the last page.  From there, I've always imagined what follows - assuming I've raised a marginally inquisitive child - to go something like this:

"Daddy, why are you crying?"

For all the times I've imagined this scenario, I've never come up with an answer to that inevitable question.  It's not like I can expect a four year old to understand slave morality, or the depths of love and sacrifice, or that the reason we can't go to Disney World every year is so that she can go to college.  Maybe I'm overestimating thesimplistic innocence of children, but I think she will just be genuinely curious about what the Boy and the Tree might be thinking as they sit there and why it's making her dad cry so much.

And we'll sit there a minute, neither of us having a damn clue.

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