Newspaper article International New York Times

'The Giving Tree': A Tender Story of Unconditional Love, or a Disturbing Tale of Monstrous Selfishness?

Newspaper article International New York Times

'The Giving Tree': A Tender Story of Unconditional Love, or a Disturbing Tale of Monstrous Selfishness?

Article excerpt

Anna Holmes and Rivka Galchen reconsider Shel Silverstein's classic, published 50 years ago.

Readers cite it as a cautionary tale regarding both the social welfare state and the obscenity that is late-stage capitalism.

I never liked Shel Silverstein's spare, twee little book, not the first time I read it, back in the late 1970s, or the second time, in the mid-1980s, or the third time, just a few weeks ago, in preparation for this column.

I'm not alone. A 2010 post about "The Giving Tree" in this paper's MotherLode blog, "Children's Books You (Might) Hate," attracted more than 300 comments. A passionate and very vocal minority of reviewers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads seems to find the story an affront not just to literature but to humanity itself. "Most disgusting book ever," said one. "One star or five, there is no middle ground," declared another. "The Nazis would have loved it," one man raged, proving that everything up to and including beloved children's picture books will fall prey to Godwin's Law -- that as an online discussion grows, so does the likelihood that someone or something will be compared to a Nazi.

For those who need a recap: Boy meets adoring, obliging apple tree and eventually, through a combination of utter impotence and blatant manipulation, makes off with her branches, her trunk and, of course, the literal fruits of her labor. (I'm not even going to get into the biblical implications of Silverstein's decision to make the tree of the book's title apple-bearing.) "And the tree was happy," reads the last line of the 52-page story, a sentiment repeated by Silverstein so many times that it sends some, like me, into paroxysms of reflexive indignation.

Of course, maybe we're just projecting, but to those who would say that Silverstein's book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I'd say, Learn better parenting skills. To those who defend it as a warts-and-all parable lamenting man's inhumanity to man -- or, perhaps, man's inhumanity to woman -- I'd say that I'm not so sure Silverstein, who dedicated the book to a former girlfriend, "Nicky," was writing an indictment of what men assume they can get way with. …

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