Simple Gifts

I’m not crazy about the fact that I’ve spawned a bunch of posts about what we haven’t read, or wish we hadn’t, or wish you wouldn’t, or what-have-you, but one good thing is that attacks will prompt defenses – some of which will be interesting enough to force a rethinking. John Schwenkler certainly has prompted such by besmirching the good name of The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. And I’m vain enough to turn my own thoughts on same into a post in its own right rather than bury them in the comments to his.

A lot of people seem to be concerned with the message of the book – does it teach a good or a bad lesson to children? It’s interesting; that’s not usually the first question we ask about books for grownups. Does Danny, Champion of the World teach a good or a bad lesson to children? What about the Nicolas books? And of course, Where the Wild Things Are is absolutely notorious for its moral corruption.

The first questions we usually ask about books relate to their truth and their beauty. The Giving Tree is both true and beautiful.

Now, not everything true is appropriate for children. Some truths require a certain maturity before they can be confronted; some will simply be incomprehensible to children. (There are even true and beautiful children’s stories that I don’t think are, in fact, appropriate for children. The movie, “Babe: Pig in the City” – which I love – comes to mind.) I don’t think The Giving Tree runs into that problem, though I do note that I know far more adults who love the book than I do children who do (or adults who loved it as children). I think the book works for kids on a very simple level – children imagine themselves as the boy, not the tree, and from the boy’s perspective it’s a story of unconditional love, something that every child needs. I don’t think there’s a little girl in the world who reads that book and says to herself, “when I grow up to be a woman, I want to be like that tree,” which seems to be the big worry; I think all kids simply note that the tree is always there, and that simple fact is what is reassuring to any child.

For grownups, the book reads differently. For us, this is a much more terrible story, because it is a story precisely about the lack of mutuality in the parent-child bond. A longer-form version of the same story is the movie, Toy Story II. This is the story of Woody’s crisis, when he realizes that his inevitable fate is to be cast aside by the boy who is the center of his universe. And that fate is inevitable – it can be delayed, but it cannot be avoided. At the end, Woody is reconciled to spending eternity in a dumpster next to the broken and similarly-discarded body of his friend, Buzz Lightyear. But he hasn’t found a way to escape that promised end.

It would be really weird to suggest that the moral of “Toy Story II” should be that Andy needs to cherish Woody more, and not throw him out. Do we want Andy to become some kind of bizarre pack rat? Similarly, it’s weird to think that the boy in The Giving Tree should apologize to the tree for making use of her. Should he apologize to the grass he walk on? The bread he eats? The air he breathes? He’s living his life. So, he cuts down a tree. That’s one of the things we do with trees: we cut them down, and build things out of them.

But even if we fully enter into the anthropomorphism, and identify more with the tree than with the boy (as many parents do), do we really want our children to apologize to us for all they cost us? For the amount of our lives we gave to them? For the chances we felt we couldn’t seize, the compromises we made, the full flourishing that was denied us because we put them, our children, at the center? Really?

I think it’s best for a parent to read the book in a different way, though, continuing to identify with the boy, and not the tree. In this reading, the tree and the boy’s childhood merge with one another. When he is a child, the boy lives on, about, and with the tree; the tree is fully alive for him then, and he is the one who imagines it into an almost-human character. But as he ages, that life – that kind of life – diminishes in him. The tree is still there, but it is no longer a living, breathing thing for him, no longer a companion. And so, inevitably, he makes use of the raw material of his childhood in his adulthood – sells it, builds with it, chops it up.

Why does the boy, in his late middle age, chop down the tree to build a boat to go away in? If the tree is, on one reading, his childhood self, what does is the significance of the cutting down, or the fashioning into a boat to escape from the life that he is actually living? Why is the tree not “really” happy with this particular course of action? We all know adults, if we have not been them ourselves, who have built dugouts of their childhood’s hearts and launched themselves upon the water, in search of something they are sure they were promised once, or think they once had, and cannot any longer live without. (Am I only going down this road because I recently saw ‘Up”? Maybe. So sue me.)

This is still not a happy story for adults, but read this way (identifying with the boy in his older years) it is at least a story that says something to adults that they may need to hear, whereas identification with the tree is not (to me) an obviously productive identification.

P.S.: if you want a kids’ book about a truly disfunctional mother-son relationship, try The Runaway Bunny. (Just kidding – have a carrot!)