The singing tree written and illustrated by Kate Seredy (George G Harrap & Co, first published 1940)
11 chapters; 216 pages with full page and chapter heading black-and-white illustrations
Subjects: World War One, Hungary, Jews, Christmas, junior fiction (Year 5-8)
I had to request this book from the library's Central Stack section (in other words: “old books not borrowed much any more”). I read it as a child, and the title has stuck in my head, but I didn’t recall exactly what it was about, apart from a vague idea that it was set in Eastern Europe.
In fact it is set in a small rural village on the Hungarian plains, where 12-year-old Kate lives with her 13-year-old cousin Jancsi on his father’s farm. The opening chapter shows Kate and Jancsi entering the village store, kept by Uncle Moses, so Kate can buy some red satin ribbons for her hat. The children are puzzled and intrigued by Uncle Mo’s method of book-keeping, which relies on his good memory and knowledge of the local people, and involves complicated deals and shrewd bargaining. It’s interesting to think about how this would have read on the book’s first publication in 1940, when the Jews in Europe were already under threat.
The villagers’ way of life is embedded in tradition, hinted at by the costumes in the illustrations. The main street, lined with “freshly whitewashed houses and blooming geraniums in the blue and green windowboxes”, echoes to the cheerful and peaceful sound of “the laughter of playing children, mixed with the cackling of hens, the honk-honk of waddling geese, the yips and barks of dogs”. Wedding celebrations involve the whole village, and run according to a carefully scripted programme, from the calling of the guests at first light to the ceremonies of the Seeking and the Lead Me Home at the end of the night of feasting and dancing; there are herds of horses on the plains and sheep and lambs – “hundreds and thousands of them… like a big white cloud rolling over the meadows.”
But there are rumours, mutterings and threats like tiny puffs of cloud in a blue sky, and once the storm of WW1 breaks, this calm and peace is threatened forever.
The first real warning sign washes over Kate’s sleepy head as she dozes on the way home from the wedding in the horse-drawn wagon. At a brief stop in front of Uncle Moses’ house, his son Aaron says something that makes her father exclaim in alarm: “Francis Ferdinand had been shot this afternoon – somewhere in Bosnia”. The adults begin to speak strange and sinister words, “words with a vaguely ugly meaning. ‘Assassination… rights of minorities… ultimatum to Serbia... mobilization.’” Soon not only Hungary but all Europe is at war. (This is at pg 99, so almost halfway through the story.)
This book also led me to an interesting review website: kidlithistory ("Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children's literature".)
Where is Hungary? Look it up on a map (and look for a map of Hungary in 1914 as well).
About the author:
I couldn't find much biographical info about Kate Seredy, but according to LibraryThing, she was born in Budapest in 1896 and served as a nurse in WW1. She emigrated to the USA in 1922, learned English, ran a children's bookstore and worked as a commercial illustrator and painter. Although she wrote several (award-winning) books, she always thought of herself as an illustrator, not a writer. She died in 1975.
Other books you might like:
The endless steppe by Esther Hauzig
A winter's day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik is set in Poland and Russia.
I am David by Anne Holm also begins in an unnamed concentration camp that seems to be in eastern Europe.
Things I didn’t know
Anything about life in Hungary before WW1. (We talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WW1, but I’d never thought much about the Hungarian side of it.)
|The singing tree is a sequel to Kate Seredy's earlier book, The good master|
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!