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Book Club Wed Oct 08 2014
It's the 50th anniversary of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree -- perhaps the world's most contentious story of a sentient tree. It's a classic story -- boy meets tree, tree falls in love with boy, boy strips tree bare of apples, branches, and finally trunk until tree is just a stump and boy is a lonely, bitter old man. As a kid, I thought the book was sad and sort of uncomfortable for reasons I couldn't quite put a finger on; as an angry 20-something I thought the tree was a sucker, and the boy was your typical, selfish tree-killing man. But I've come around to thinking this is a subtly brilliant indictment of some of the things we value the most.
The New York Times ran an article in their Book Review section last week: two writers debated "whether the book is a tender story of unconditional love or a disturbing tale of monstrous selfishness." Frankly, it's neither. Silverstein wasn't a dummy. He put the meaning of the book right there in the title. It's about giving. And giving, being generous, makes us very uncomfortable. Because giving, really giving, feels like losing. To give something to someone else, you must lose something of yourself. This is a very American way to look at generosity. Some of us (me) were taught very young to gird our loins against those who wanted stuff from us, and according to paranoid '80s parents, everyone wanted stuff from us. But even beyond that, for me, at least, real generosity was portrayed as martyrdom, death -- with reward, sure, but still death.
This is where we can learn from the giving tree. The tree is a true subversive - it knows, from day one, exactly who it is. It has no gender (though people, not surprisingly, call it female). It has no agenda. And because of this, it knows that being generous does not put its essential selfhood in danger. But we, the readers, grow increasingly uncomfortable as the tree gives away all the things that make it economically viable - its apples! Its branches! Its trunk! My god, all that's left of the poor tree by the end is its worthless stump, and - though left unspoken - its roots. When is a tree not a tree? When is a person not a person?
But throughout the book -- the tree is happy. The only time the tree is unhappy is when the boy leaves. "And the tree was happy" is the last line of the book. The tree retains its essential treeness.
But what of the boy? The boy is the tragic character; the boy never learns. He is forever tied to his desires and his greed. He wants, he takes -- he is never happy. Eventually, this wears out the boy's spirit, by the end he is too tired to want at all... and only then does he seem, maybe, content. The tree, on the other hand, has stripped away everything it doesn't need, and in so doing, has lived a full life. The tree knows what is important, and in the end, the tree gets the boy.
Shel Silverstein is a national treasure and a Chicago native. Born in Logan Square in 1930, he wrote and drew over 20 beloved children's books and though he was, perhaps, less well-known as a musician -- he wrote music and performed on nearly 20 albums as well. He died of a heart attack in 1999.
Photos courtesy of the author's website, shelsilverstein.com