Shrill Travesty's The Taking Tree
illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Book review by Monica Friedman
An Irreverent Spoof of a Beloved Classic
Fans of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree can rejoice in this horrifying, morality-free satire, provided they are also fans of Silverstein's less altruistic works. Uncle Shelby himself would most likely approve of the tongue-in-cheek tale of an oak tree and a kid who was a "real jerk." There is nothing sweet, kind hearted, or lovable about the characters: the boy is simply greedy and destructive, while the tree is distressed, then defensive, and then retaliatory.
While the tree in the original story loved a little boy, this tree "just hated the kid," who is categorized first as a "loser," and then as that precise kind of awful child to whom no good can possibly come. He uses the tree's resources only for evil: twigs to "poke his sister," acorns "to whip at old people," and leaves to start fires. This last behavior gets the kid sent "away for a very long time."
The tree's condition is both sad and funny: she can't get away from the kid because she is a tree, and "This was where her roots were," although the illustration shows her frantically trying to pull her own roots up out of the ground. Later, a pine tree categorizes the kid as a dog, because "There is nothing trees hate more than dogs." Through the story, the tree's distress is drawn with nothing more than a line or circle to indicate various frowns, etched into the trunk.
Watching a pair of angry police officers stuff the kid into a cruiser against a backdrop of fires, for the first time in the book, "the tree was very happy."
When the kid comes back, many years later, "he was a teenager. Meaning he was an even bigger jerk." The kid extorts more resources from the tree to cover his college tuition, then blows the tree off, having gotten a scholarship. Again, he goes away, and again the tree is happy. When the kid comes back, "he was no longer a kid. He was a very successful businessman. Which often happens when little jerks grow up."
The Taking Tree proceeds apace, with the kid behaving badly, despite the tree's objections, until the tree retaliates and gets the kid sent back in jail. Eventually, the little back and forth results in both characters' deaths (the kid cuts the tree down with a chainsaw, and the tree falls on him.) Someone carves the epitaph "Here Lies a Real Jerk," into the stump, and the story concludes with the pseudo-meaningful meta message, "The trust of the tree was made into paper. They printed a book on it. You just read it."
The Taking Tree: A Selfish Parody reads almost like a lightweight piece of humor, but it also is a story that reflects a very real frustration with the wages of selfishness in our society, which are rarely as appropriate as being crushed by on organism you have tormented your whole life. The observation that little jerks often grow up to be successful businessmen suggests that the original Silverstein story is too innocent for our day, that unchecked generosity breeds contempt, and that both our local flora as well as our local kids might deserve and require a little more responsible adult supervision.
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