Newbery Review: The Singing Tree

One of my favorite Newbery books ever--touching, sweet, and powerful. | A book review by

World War I tragedies + Hungarian history + strong, courageous characters = I’ve teared up more over this book than probably any of the children for whom this book was written.  The Singing Tree was written and illustrated by multiple Newbery Honor award winning author, Kate Seredy.  The title sounds silly, but the story is anything but.

The book starts off happily–it’s a continuation of The Good Master, an earlier Newbery book written by Seredy, and the plot of The Singing Tree picks up where The Good Master left off.  Jancsi and Kate are cousins (preteens at the beginning of the book) who ride horses, take care of chickens, and get into trouble together on Jancsi’s father’s farm in the Hungarian countryside.  All the characters from the first book are enjoying life together, working on the farm and spending time with family, even attending a traditional Hungarian wedding.  Then the news comes–Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated; War has begun.  Jancsi’s father, Kate’s father, the newlywed Peter, and many others are sent off to fight.

As time passes, Jancsi and his family take on six Russian prisoners of war, who are big, friendly farmers who didn’t want to be fighting in the war anyway.  They help take care of the farm while Jancsi’s father Marton is away.  Six more join the household when the family agrees to take on German children who are starving and in need of a place to stay.  Eventually, there are twenty family members and refugees who call the Nagy farm home.

I was surprised at how many of the issues that war  presents were tackled head-on.  At one point, the new bridegroom Peter comes back from the war (he deserted temporarily to see his newborn child and sickly wife), and he is so full of anger and hate, even toward those who had loved and cared for him during his youth, that his wife wonders how she can ever love him again because he was so changed.  The lines of people begging for food, the abandoned houses and animals all over Hungary, are described in passing but without sugarcoating.  News of the deaths of family and friends arrives, and tears are shed in private, so as not to make life more difficult for other family members.  An American general writes, “Lost ten thousand men.  Advanced three miles.”  I can’t fathom losing so many human lives in one go.  It’s incredible.  Along with these sad aspects, however, there are moments of hope.  The German children, Russian farmers, and Hungarian locals all begin to see that whether German, Russian, or Hungarian, they have more things in common than they have differences.

There are some issues in this book in terms of how women are presented, although I hesitate to call them “issues” in a book written in 1939 and set several years earlier than that.  There are several occasions where Kate and the new housemate Lily are told they can’t do things because they are girls (it was a little shocking to me that on a farm, women would still be expected to wear full skirts and ride sidesaddle), but there was one section that really caught my attention and came close to making up for all of that.  This section speaks about Jancsi’s mother and her fears as her husband has been gone so long at war.

So she knew, thought Jancsi.  Under that gentle smile she was hiding the same fear, smiling so we wouldn’t be frightened. […] So women were not all gentle, helpless softness, either; they too had a steel armor that would not let them show the tears inside.

The last shred of harsh, small-boyish pride in his new manhood left Jancsi then; he was all man now, bowing his head to the strength of a woman.

The girls, Kate and Lily, are also allowed to tag along with Jancsi on several different trips that he took, in order to help him or to accomplish their own goals.  I thought that was impressive, not just because they were female, but because they are all young teenagers.  It made me quite sad to see all the responsibility the children had to take on during the war.

The saddest part, though, was at the end of the book, when the war was finally over in 1918.  The Jewish shopkeeper, Uncle Moses, says, “A new day is coming, Marton, for us, for all nations.  No more wars, Marton.  No more persecution, no more intolerance ever….”  To think that only a few years later, the Nazis would entrench themselves in Hungary and begin a reign of terror is so painful to think about.

After spending eight weeks living in Budapest, I have a soft spot for this small country that has been overrun by nearly everyone around them–Turkey, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the Nazis, and most recently the Soviet Communist party.  I have read before how the events of WWII affected Hungary, but this is the first book I’ve read that detailed the effects of WWI.  It really moved me in its unflinching yet hopeful look at the tragedies of war and the strength of family.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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