We've just been revisiting these for night-time read alouds and, inspired by Karen Edmisten's posts on Caddie Woodlawn, I wanted to share a little from The Singing Tree.
15 year old Jancsi Nagy lives on a beautiful, remote farm in Hungary in the early 20th century. Although the guns of World War I can't be heard from their home, we get a gentle (and thus appropriate for children) but realistic glimpse of the awfulness and futility of war through their eyes; but also a sense of hope in ordinary people who want the good. The story is filled with lots of laugh-out-loud spots. Our children have always particularly enjoyed the "Six Big Russians", prisoners of war who come to help on the Nagy farm when Jancsi's father is away at war. The dialogue is so priceless as you see the depth of understanding these men have even though they speak a very few, simple words because of their language difference. Here's a little sample (by the way, Kate is Jancsi's cousin):
[Mother] had called the Russians "bears" since first she laid eyes on them. They followed Jancsi around, tramping behind him in their big, clumsy boots, trying to understand what he was saying. Uncle Moses was right, though. The horses and farm-tools, the cows, chickens, and sheep, formed the first link of understanding. A few weeks after they had come, they knew the Hungarian words for everyday things all around the ranch and from then on they learned very fast. When the sheep were driven in for winter quarters, Jancsi tried to show them how the feeding troughs and water fountains were arranged. Grigori - he seemed to be the boss - calmly pushed him aside. "Me do," he said, and in no time the folds were in order.
"Me do," became a byword on the farm. Haul in wood and chop it?" "Me do," Nicolai would say. Feed and clean animals? "Me do," and Sergei sprang into action. Milk the cow? "Me do," Stana had declared soon after the plowing was done, and "Me do" it was from then on.
Grigori had taken charge of baby Panni with such determination that Mari surrendered the child to him the moment he appeared, face and hands scrubbed red, a large apron of Mother's tied around him. His clumsy, callused hands became light, gentle, as if he were holding a fragile flower. Big Peter and Bigger Peter, as the family had labeled the two Russian Peters, had been shepherds in Russia. They lived and slept in the fields, leaving their charges only long enough to eat their meals.
The only person who held out against the authoritative "Me do" of Grigori was Kate. Her chickens were her chickens and that was all there was to that.
"You are a nice Russian, Grigori," she said to him one day, "but leave my chickens alone. You don't know anything about chicken raising."
"Ho! Grigori know chicken. Grigori do," he laughed.
"Oh, no, you won't! These are not Russian chickens."
"Ho! Chicken is chicken." But Kate stamped her foot. "No. Me do. Go away!"
Grigori went, laughing. From the yard he turned back. "Ho! Chicken is chicken...little devil is little devil, Russko, Magyarsko...all same!"
Though the Nagy home is bursting at the seams, several years into the war, the family takes in six German children. Because of the allied sanctions, food is scarce and children are in great need. This leads to the beautiful, poignant sub-plot that I wanted to share. The setting is the letters which the three young German boys (around 12 years old) write to their parents:
"These people," wrote Hans in the late fall of 1917, "do not hate anyone. In our school in Berlin we were told that Russians and English and French are monsters. That is not true, Mother. The six Russians, especially my best friend Stana, are like German men, like Papa. They like to laugh and play with us and they like to work. Maybe the French and English men are the same. Our teacher told us a lie about the Jews too. Herr Mandelbaum, the storekeeper in the village, is not selfish and rich and bad. He is very old and small and he has lost two sons in the war. Herr Nagy, Jancsi's father, is giving him money now to pay for goods in the store because Herr Mandelbaum has no more left. He bought war bonds to help the country. If he is helping Hungary, isn't he helping Germany too? We are allies. And nobody in the village pays him for anything and he does not keep books. He just remembers what people owe him, Jancsi says, but now he often forgets because people have no money. I cannot understand Hungarian very well yet, but Jancsi can make me understand many things.
"I do not hate Russians now, Mother, and I think that Jews are very kind and good. When I grow up I want to be a teacher and teach what Grigori is always saying. He says that people are all the same in Russia and Germany and Hungary and that we are all brothers. It's true, Mother. Why did our teacher in Berlin lie to us? I have asked Herr Nagy, but he said our teacher must have been a stupid man. If he is stupid, Mother, why is he a teacher?
"But sometimes I think that maybe Herr Nagy and Grigori are wrong. Because if we are all brothers, why is there a war?
"Please, Mother, tell me who is right?"
When the letter came with the answer, the three blond heads of Hans, Paul, and Johann bent over it eagerly. Maybe this would tell them who is right.
"My dear little Hans," the letter said, "I am glad that you are well and happy. Please tell Herr Nagy and your Russian friends that a German mother is praying for them every night. Tell them that I want to thank them for teaching my boy to love instead of hate.
"Forget all your teacher in Berlin has told you. Be very good, little Hans, to deserve the kindness and love of those good people..."