“…Some of you have steady jobs now. Most of you work off and on…there is not one among you who is not a man after me own heart. Kicked around by life you were, sure. Only, I am the cop on the beat and I know that there is not one among you who has asked for charity or gone around whining for a dime he didn’t earn. Proud you are… poorer than poor but proud, and I… I am indeed the proud man to know you.”
If stories like A Tree For Peter by Kate Seredy were read and loved in homes across America, I think we could go far in our quest to rebuild civil and neighborly society. Children who are weaned on stories like this would be likely to love their neighbors as themselves, to work hard for the common good, and to see people among them – not colors, not classes, not divisions. This depression-era story is part fairy tale, part exposition on the Gospel, and it is all good. My only regret is not having read this sooner.
In our divided and contentious society today, older stories can sometimes feel overly idealistic, overly moral, and/or overly preachy. I personally love old stories because of their typically optimistic outlook on the human spirit, and I don’t mind at all the overt morality present in those stories. While this “modern” fairy tale (published in 1941) is very moral, a little preachy, and totally idealistic, it does not feel forced or unnatural. In fact, it feels like a true story, albeit a true story in which a child entertains an angel unawares. As a child of the Mister Rogers era, I find much to cherish in this inspiring story of a slum turned into a neighborhood. In fact, I half wonder if Mister Rogers grew up reading A Tree for Peter while he was developing his orientation towards neighborliness.
A Tree for Peter is a tender story told in four parts about hope and miracles.
“Tommy was six years old when he first saw Shantytown. He had never before seen anything so sad and ugly. He saw it through a train window on a rainy afternoon. The rain ran like rivulets of tears off the half-blind old windows of the crooked old houses and off their crooked old roofs that looked like shapeless hats.”
When Tommy notices a little boy standing in the rain looking back at him, the boys exchange smiles. Tommy is quickly distracted by happier and more exciting things, but that memory gets tucked away deep inside his moral imagination and works in the background of his mind to shape his own life mission.
In the second and fourth parts of the story, those little boys are grown up. Each of those sections is short and truly sweet.
“‘A spade. A little toy spade with a red handle from the five and ten-cent store,’ said Peter Marsh quietly. ‘It is a story. A long one. About a lame boy, a little red spade, a tiny Christmas tree, and a… a man nobody knew. Want to hear it?’”
The third part of the story is by far the longest and most compelling. It is here that Peter Marsh tells the story of how Shantytown became Peter’s Landing. The story of a scared little boy who entertains a mysterious tramp and is blessed in doing so. The tramp, King Peter, introduces Small Peter to courage, hope, and joy. Through their friendship, King Peter helps Small Peter befriend a homeless dog who becomes Small Peter’s constant companion. King Peter also helps Small Peter to befriend Officer Pat who becomes a central figure in Small Peter’s life. The fruits of these friendships profoundly change Shantytown.
“After that, the big policeman came every day, as before. Only now he was not He, the big policeman, just Pat, a friend. He was full of good, rumbling laughter and of stories. He told Peter of Ireland, where the hills were a checkerboard of green grass and sky-blue flax, where white cottages peeked from under their thatched roofs like small boys in need of a haircut, where wee folk lived in the hollows of trees and under the hedgerows.”
Stories about poverty can sometimes be unsettling and too sad to really be enjoyed by small readers. This is not like that. The poverty is real but Seredy shows great tact in not dwelling on the hardships nor the sadness. She loves her little readers, and instead chooses to focus on the embers of hope and how they get fanned into flames. I read this story aloud three afternoons in a row and my children were utterly captivated. So well told, the story is sweet, interesting, inspiring, and truly lovely.
Kate Seredy was Hungarian by birth and English was not her first language. And yet, I would argue that she has better control of her second language than most native English speakers have of their first. Her writing is positively musical and begs to be read aloud. Her words taste good in my mouth. Two examples:
“It was a cold winter and a fierce one. It raged and howled, it blew ice and snow over everything; but snow meant work for the men, cleaning the city streets. Work meant food and warm rooms at the end of the day; work well done meant maybe a steady job later on. So each dawn the men left the city, but now they did not go alone; they went marching off together, whistling in the face of the wind. At night they tramped back, tired and cold but seldom with empty hands.”
“Then Spring came. Not all of a sudden; it had to fight winter off. But the sun, hidden and helpless for many weeks behind heavy clouds, was riding high again and it was helping spring against winter. By the end of March they won the fight, spring and the sun.
“They swept into Shantytown together and went to work. The sun warmed the small patch of grass and spring painted it green again. The sun danced around the little tree and spring stuck tiny pale green candles of fresh growth on every bough. The sun tapped with shining fingers on the windows of the old houses, when they opened spring marched in.”
In several places I have read that Kate Seredy always considered herself an illustrator more than an author. In fact, she is reported to have said that she thought of books as an excuse for making pictures. While I think that her writing is exceptional, I also think that it reflects that bias. She writes as though she is describing a picture. A carefully drawn picture in which the subject is in focus, the setting exists to support the subject, and something of the Holy Spirit is animating the subject with radiance. The pictures included in this review are used with permission from Purple House Press who recently reprinted this book. Like Purple House Press’s printing of Elizabeth Orton Jones’s story TWIG, this paperback is oversized, has a velvet-like cover, thick creamy pages, and is lush with full-page illustration.
I shared this story with my six, eight, and ten-year-olds. The eight and ten-year-old could have read it independently with ease, but all of us enjoyed it as a read aloud.