Book Review and Reflection: “The Chestry Oak”

chestryA while back I read that Albert Einstein supposedly said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As it turns out, that’s not a direct quote, but it comes close to his message. One day, a mother of young children sought out the good doctor and asked what kind of books her kids should read in order to prepare for careers in science.

His reply was “Fairy tales and more fairy tales” because, he explained, a creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist. Fairy tales, in his opinion, are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

There’s more. Bulgarian-born Maria Popova, author behind the superb blog “Brain Pickings,” maintains that “Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.”

The Chestry Oak” by Kate Seredy was written for children. But is not a fairy tale. There are no ghosts, dragons, or evil witches. It is historical fiction, the story of young Prince Michael of the Chestry Valley in Hungary – the same part or the world that gave us Maria Popova.  The story has much of the terrible and the terrific. But the terror and tumult of the gauntlet that Michael navigates, as do his father, his nanny, and others in the tale, is all too real.

Michael is six years old when World War II breaks out and the Nazis conquer Chestry Valley. That kind of evil, National Socialism — and its accomplice and jackal Communism – actually existed, and not all that long ago. Moreover, it seems, we’ve been gradually taught to forget them and to dread them.  They can’t happen here, can they?

Michael’s home, Chestry Castle, becomes the local headquarters for the Nazi military. The vile Herman Goering’s presence is felt, though he doesn’t make an appearance. Michael’s father, the Prince of Chestry, does not actively resist or defy them, and many of his countrymen consider him a traitor.

Michael’s life, and that of the realm’s mighty stallion Midnight, is spared when an Allied bombing raid destroys the castle and kills almost everyone in the valley. He carries with him an acorn that had previously dropped from the thousand-year-old Chestry Oak. The tree had once sheltered Saint Stephen, patron saint of Hungary, as he led the people of the valley in battle against heathen hordes.

Every prince of Chestry would, on his seventh birthday plant, plant a seed from that oak.  Michael cannot plant the acorn on that day, however, and the tree is destroyed by bombs.  The story tells how he eventually learns the whole truth about what happened and how he keeps his solemn promise to his father. He eventually does plant the last acorn. He fulfills his mission as the bearer and custodian of his people’s history and collective memory.

Though “The Chestry Oak,” written in 1948, is based on actual events, it has many of the desirable qualities and lessons that Popova identifies in fairy tales.  It is unsanitized and unsweetened. It tells of both soaring goodness and monstrous evil springing from the same source – members of the human race. It tells of our need to preserve the ancient values, of the gallantry and nobility of ordinary people, of the precious worth of personal honor and fidelity to promises.

Also, even with its historical grounding, the story feels a little like both J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” There’s a bit of the film “War Horse” in there too; my equestrian friends will like the descriptions of Prince Michael’s horsemanship.

My grandsons, ages three and one, are too young for “The Chestry Oak.” I’ll save it for them, maybe until the day when they’ve learned at least a bit of history of our world. In the meantime, I’ll try to share with them those wonderful stories and characters that you and I got to know when we were children.

That’s the least I can do, and I thank Dr. Einstein and Maria Popova for reminding me why those stories are so important.

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