The Monday Book: THE SINGING TREE by Kate Seredy

This YA novel is actually the sequel to a famous children’s classic called The Good Master. Kate and Jansci are cousins introduced in that book, when Kate is sent to live with her father’s brother’s family because she’s a spoiled city girl who has been ill.

The Singing Tree is a much deeper book, detailing the experiences of the Hungarian farmers during World War I. The book deals in childlike innocence with topics such as anti-Jewish sentiment in Hungary, the power grab of Austria, the terrible opening of the war, and how Hungarians and Germans set themselves up for future enmity.

The farm where Marton Nagy (the good master) keeps his family safe, and later shelters neighbors who lose their farms, and then houses Russian prisoners of war who work the farm while he is in the army, and finally takes in a passel of German refugee children, is a big happy place. Part of why I like this book is its sappy “Sound of Music” plot twists. (For one example, a stray cat having kittens makes Kate detour the farm wagon to an army field hospital, where missing Uncle Marton is discovered as an amnesia patient. I know, right? Eye rolling.)

And yet throughout the book are these amazing moments of writing, where true horror is simply spoken out by the beloved characters in heartbreaking poetic ways. Marton tells his family the story of Christmas 2015, when soldiers on each side of the trench separating them from killing each other the next day began lighting candles.

Light a candle for Christmas Eve, men whispered and their very words seemed to turn into tiny stars as dozens and dozens, then hundreds of candles came forth from the knapsacks to be lighted and stuck in the snow…..

Kate sighed, a long, tremulous sigh: Oh that was beautiful! What happened after?

The candles burned down, Kate, and the–darkness closed in again. Let those who made war heard the story of what happened after. Let them see.” He lifted his arm and covered his eyes.

Lots of characters fill out the pages and the plot in lovely ways, like Uncle Moses the shopkeeper and Sergei the head of the Russian prisoners, and Mother, who is described in the title. She is the tree that shelters what turns out to be more than twenty people from five nationalities on their farm. Unbelievable, except, in Seredy’s masterful style, it is.

I loved this book as a child and found additional meaning to it as an adult. Give it a read.

The Monday Book: THE END IS ALWAYS NEAR by Dan Carlin

The endThis week’s Monday book comes courtesy of Paul Garrett, who has a wicked sense of humor….

While the headlines of the day may have us fighting over toilet paper at the big box store and thinking of mortgaging the house for a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’s easy to assume we are facing a unique threat. The fact is throughout human history we have always been walking a knife edge between chaos and order.

Dan Carlin, famous for his long-winded (up to six hour) Hardcore History podcasts has written a relatively short-winded book about the history of the world from the perspective of disaster. Running just over 200 pages, The End is Always Near (Harper Collins, 2019) makes the point that though we may live in self-assured tranquility (up until about a month ago) from an historical perspective mankind is never far from disaster.

Much of the book’s narrative is spent on three topics: The first is the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, when civilization, after centuries of advancement suddenly and without explanation imploded and fell into a dark age. Another topic, which could have been written yesterday, covers the frequent scourge of pandemics: from the Black death to smallpox to the so-called Spanish Flu. That pandemic alone killed between fifty and one hundred million people world-wide in a period of about 24 weeks in 1918-19.

In a chapter entitled The Road to Hell he discusses the nuclear age and the deadly math of the war planners who believe the way to shorten war is to kill as many people as quickly as possible. The calculation is that many more lives will be saved by bringing the conflict to a quick end. He asserts that the threat of nuclear annihilation may have prevented many deaths as the nuclear powers have been loath to engage in large scale so-called kinetic action for fear of driving their enemies to the nuclear button. Instead we have opted for proxy wars where we encouraged various client states to do the fighting for us.

He gives barely a nod to Climate change, stating that whatever destruction it reaps will take place over decades or centuries while this book is about things that can wipe us out in weeks or milliseconds. We have only to notice how the Chinese Corona Virus has swept climate change off the front page to see his point.

The book has footnotes on almost every page, some with more text than the narrative, as if it were written by someone who forgot to take their Adderall. It is a warning to people whose most dire concern up until a month ago may have been who would “Like” their latest Facebook post. It serves as a reminder (as if the morning’s headlines weren’t enough) that no matter how secure we feel in our Mc Mansions with all the modern conveniences, there are dragons lurking out in the darkness.