The Singing Tree

1 July 2001

I've already spent three hours in the car today, and it feels like I haven't gone much of anywhere. Mark and I went up to church this morning and came home, and then we took Michelle and Scott to the airport and came home. It's so hard to remember what it was like to live in a 20-minute city, or even a half-hour one. Everywhere we want to go takes time. We've gotten so used to travel time that I think nothing of planning on a big chunk of research on the train, or of just quiet music-and-talk time in the car.

One of the things Mark and I ended up talking about was books that just knocked us over. When I was very, very small, I read The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, and it blew my mind. It was the first time I realized who it was that fought wars -- that it wasn't some nebulous thing, that it was people, genuine people with families who would wait at home, and that both sides would be waiting for the people to come home again safely. I must have been very young. My grandfather is a retired Marine, and many of my cousins are in the service -- and I grew up in Omaha, which means that Strategic Air Command was flying planes over my house every single day -- so the idea that wars are fought by people I, personally, know, was one that occurred early and often. But The Singing Tree was the first time that the ideas connected in my head, and I wandered around the house in a daze.

It occurs to me that this is who I want to write for: people, whatever age, who can be dazed by a good book. People who can be blown away. People who can get entirely lost in a book. I want other readers as well, casual readers and thoughtful readers and all kinds -- but it's my small, solemn-faced self, twisting the end of a braid around her finger as she thinks and thinks and thinks about a book -- that's who I want to find with my books.

The Singing Tree is a curious example of this phenomenon, because I think many of the books that blew me away are justifiable. The Bridge to Terebithia, for example, is a fabulous story. But The Singing Tree does not have a particularly well-constructed story. The characters are not so deep. It was the ideas that got me. When I reread it last summer, I was chilled by what didn't hit me. In this little Hungarian village in the book, there's an old Jewish couple who has lived there forever. As a child, I didn't understand what it had to do with the story that people started being mean to them towards the end. I didn't know why the main characters had to fight to defend old Uncle Moses Mandelbaum. It seemed like it didn't fit. And as an adult, I knew it was just history, it was just how things were in Hungary after the first World War. It was such a scary loss-of-innocence story, and I missed it completely. And yet it still captivated me.

I didn't get a lot of work done yesterday, but Timprov and I are going to have a good discussion of structure for my Not The Moose Book this afternoon or evening, and I'll work on Reprogramming some more. It'll be good.

We're expecting to hear back on Grandpa's biopsies today or tomorrow. I'll be trying not to wait by the phone, not to jump at every noise, not to snap at telemarketers who call when I expect to hear from someone important. I'll be trying.

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