A guest reader--that’s what I was, and the book was a classic, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I was supposed to read it for all the Sunday school kids, even though I guessed that supercilious eighth graders would be bored to tears. To me, on first glance, it seemed pure kiddie lit.
And a real downer, oddly enough. By the end of The Giving Tree, the little boy is a scrunched-up octogenarian, the tree nothing but a stump. The story is a trip through life that doesn’t end in a particularly heavenly fashion, that’s for sure.
I’m guessing that nobody would have read it to me when I was six, certainly not in Sunday School. Back then, some eager beaver superintendent would have scanned the tale and tossed it as being unsuitable Sunday School material. The tree loves the boy, after all, which is a little weird; and the depth of that love is nothing to sneeze at, because throughout the boy’s life the tree gives him just about everything he needs, just gives it away—apples, branches, even its trunk. What’s worse, that creepy, bizarre tree love is almost totally unrequited. “Trees don’t love us!-- that’s flat out pantheism,” some warty old doctrinalist would have said.
So first I giggled, as I often do these days, shaking my head at how the world has changed in Midwestern burgs and their little churches.
In the parable Silverstein tells, that sweetheart apple tree is a kind of God because it continues to love “the boy” even when he doesn’t deserve it--which is to say, the tree loves unconditionally. Shoot, by the time the boy is an old man, the tree is nothing but a hassock stump. So the old man sits down. Leafless, branchless, trunkless, the giving tree has given the boy everything, but it still loves the kid, who’s no longer a kid.
"I really cannot help you if you ask for another gift. I’m nothing but an old stump now. I’m sorry but I’ve nothing more to give."
"I do not need very much now, just a quiet place to rest," the boy whispered, with a weary smile.
"Well,” said the tree, "an old stump is still good for that. Come, boy,” he said, "Sit down, sit down and rest a while."
And so he did and oh, the tree was happy. Oh, the tree was glad.
End of story. I’m not making this up.
Where on earth are the orthodoxy cops these days?
I wasn’t about to pull the cork myself, so, as requested, yesterday morning I read the old Silverstein classic, and the kids seemed to like it.
And I had to giggle because at the very moment I was standing up there, reading and showing them Silverstein’s illustrations (hearts carved into the trunk, by the way), it dawned on me that the whole story was set deeply in the cultural tradition of the Yankton Sioux, who, 200 hundred years ago, may well have chased down buffalo right there where the those kids were sitting yesterday, if we could turn back the calendar.
The Sioux would have loved The Giving Tree, wouldn’t have thought of it as a sad or strange, would have passed the story along to their kids just as I was that morning. All living things have life and mystery and are blessed by Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. A people who would offer a prayer to a freshly slain buffalo, thanking that animal for feeding the people, is a tribe of folks who wouldn’t question for a minute whether a giving tree could love a human being.
This morning, I’m sure, most of the kids won’t even remember The Giving Tree, but that doesn’t mean the story’s not there, packed away in the fables by which we create our sense of the world we’re in.
Here’s what I figure: it wouldn’t hurt for most of us out here in the land of agri-business to take a lesson or two from the Lakota culture we so rudely displaced with our Calvinist/capitalist ethics, even if that lesson comes by way of Shel Silverstein, a Jewish boy from Chicago, who probably never saw a buffalo or set foot in Siouxland.
Somehow the whole thing still makes me giggle, and, believe me, it ain’t kiddie lit.