But Not The GivingTree
I love children’s literature in all its various shapes and sizes. I read high and low and magical and humorous. Kid's books are near and dear to me as a reader, a bibliophile, and as a parent who reads passionately to my child. From early, almost wordless board books, to Winnie The Pooh and Winnie The Witch, on to Roald Dahl and straight through to Harry Potter, there are very few exceptions. The Giving Tree is one.
The book jacket from the HarperCollins imprint calls The Giving Tree a “tender story, touched by sadness, aglow with consolation.” This book offers me not one scrap of consolation. I have yet to read through its pages without a palpable sense of outrage. I have never read The Giving Tree to my child and I never will.
I know there are children and adults alike who love this book. Please, if The Giving Tree holds a precious place on your bookshelf, stop reading now. Or, if you feel up to it, read on and then tell me where oh where is the goodness in this tale of giving? Where, HarperCollins Book Jacket People, is the tenderness of which you speak?
Try as I might, I cannot see the “moving parable” for the dysfunctional relationship between the boy and the tree. It s not just the feminist part of my brain that is appalled every time I read this book, it is the mother part of my heart and my whole human spirit that screams nonononononono like an air raid siren.
At first, the boy loves the tree, the tree loves the boy. The tree is a “she” the boy is a “he”. The relationship is clearly maternal: she shelters, feeds, and plays with the boy. He takes what she so lovingly gives. He rests in her shade. She is happy. At this point, the boy is a child, and selfish as a child is selfish in his innocence. He is happy, hungry, concerned with playing, climbing, and his own exuberance.
We come then to the first disturbing bit: Boy carves his name and the tree’s (“me & T”) in a heart on her trunk. Our children do carve themselves into our skin just as surely as we bear them in our wombs and carry forever after the stretch marks of that journey. But I find this token of a kind of romantic love out of place with the parent/child imagery that has come before. Also, it means he has taken a knife to her trunk, which makes me squirm just a little.
The squirming continues with the arrival of another set of legs under Tree’s generous shade. And another heart carved above the first. Boy is back, after lengthy absences, and he is canoodling carelessly under her roof. Time goes by. Tree is still happy, but alone often.
When Boy shows up again, much older, and he wants money, my little siren gets louder. Tree doesn’t have money, so she gives him her apples to sell.
“And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered
and carried them away."
Nononononono, don’t give away your apples. Boy, meanwhile, buggers off again. But he comes back, and now he wants big money. Down payment money. She offers up her branches this time. So Boy cuts off her limbs!
“And the tree is happy”.
Up to now, if we reeeeally stretch it, I suppose you could still argue a parent/child relationship. You know, the money doesn’t grow on trees argument, or the down payment on a house because you want them to live happily ever after gift.
But this is a dangerously exploitive kid. Selling her apples for money sounds perilously like pimping out your sister for drugs. What would Freud say? Maybe it is all Tree’s fault. She spoiled him.
What of Tree? And are we really supposed to be moved by her selfless giving? Boy never even says please! Never shows a smidgeon of gratitude. This is clearly not healthy for Tree. She’s losing limbs over it.
Now, “The boy stayed away for a while”, and I’m rooting for Tree. Hoping that she’s grown some new branches, found some peace, that there is solace in the shelter of the other trees and the company of birdsong.
No such luck. Boy turns up again, an old dude in a trench coat with baggage in tow, all stooped and sad and he wants more:
“a boat that will
take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?”
I am now tearing at my hair. Stop. Don’t give him anything. For his own good! He’s clearly made a mess of his life. All your giving has taught him nothing of kindness or gratitude or love.
But she offers herself up, and he cuts her to a stump, and sails away.
“And the tree was happy…
but not really.”
How did this get made into a children’s book? What are parents communicating when we read this story? This is not a loving story. This is TWISTED.
Even Buddha would point out that selfless love has its own rewards. Tree is not feeling so great. There has been no reward for her all self-sacrifice. Jesus, who offered himself up for love, certainly expects some respect. Some worship even.
This is no environmental tree-hugging tale either. It ends in clearcut. Because what does Boy do when he comes back yet again? He admits he has nothing left to offer Tree (like he ever offered anyway) and what does he do then? HE SITS ON HER.
And she lets him. And she is happy.
This above all is why I will never ever read The Giving Tree to a child. This final image, this co-dependant exploitive exhalation of a happily-ever-after breaks my heart.
My only hope is that the outrage I feel could be the moral. Maybe Shel Silverstein was trying to tell children not to grow up to be anyone’s stump. But Book Jacket People, I am not consoled.
Original CanadaMomsBlog Post
EarnestGirl also writes at YummyMummyClub