Sunday, February 15, 2004

Save the date 

As I listen to my copy of "Freakin' at the Freakers Ball" for the zillionth time, it seems appropriate to report on HarperCollins' next endeavor in repackaging Shel's children's books for a new audience. This year marks both the 30th anniversary of WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and the 40th Anniversary of THE GIVING TREE. The former was reissued last month with 12 additional poems, while the former will be relaunched in April with an extra surprise--a CD of Shel reading the now-classic tale of a boy, a tree, and how one gives and the other takes. Though Shel evidently made the recording in the mid-1980s, around the same time as his recordings of SIDEWALK and A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC, it's only seeing the light of day now due to contractual and other legal issues. I'm especially glad because perhaps his interpretation of this work will help me get over my own ambivalence.

For someone who has been a serious fan of his work for years and considers him as close to a genius as ever there was, I consider THE GIVING TREE one of his weaker works. It's a statement that Shel himself may have agreed with, especially since he said to Publisher's Weekly back in 1974 that it "wasn't one of his favorite books," in part because it "presents just one idea." But for a short book that develops a single idea, there's no question that it's touched a chord with millions of readers, each who chooses to put a particular spin on what the book's actually about. THE GIVING TREE has been especially embraced by devout Christians who compare the boy to Jesus and the tree to Mary, or something like that.

Somehow, I doubt that's what Shel had in mind at all, and I said as much in this essay I wrote about four years ago. It stemmed from hearing of a now-defrocked priest, Brennan Manning, who lectured around the country and related a story of how his supposed friendship with Shel was the impetus for the book. After doing some checking, I came to the conclusion that Manning was telling tall tales. A couple of years ago I got an email from his assistant indicating that Manning would be sending me a rebuttal letter in response, but he never followed through.

So what's THE GIVING TREE really about? I always thought a clue resided in the book's dedication, "to Nicky." According to Shel's nephew, the Chicago-based music journalist Mitch Myers, Nicky was a girlfriend of Shel's at the time of the book's creation. In light of that information, things suddenly clicked for me; the book was both apology and explanation that he couldn't be the kind of person she necessarily wanted him to be, that a relationship with him would always be limited. That theme recurred later on in some of his songs, especially my personal favorite, "I Can't Touch the Sun":

So say goodbye and don't look back, I've had some happy days with you.
Sorry I can't be the one who stays with you.
And if they ask about me, you can say I was the one with you.
Who never touched the clouds or reached the sun with you.
I can't touch the clouds or reach the sun.

The tree gives, the boy takes. And it's a story that will likely resonate with future generations of readers.

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