You may recall the basic plot of the book. Graced with Shel Silverstein’s simple black-and-white line drawings, it tells the story of a little boy and the tree that loves him dearly. The boy and the tree play joyfully together at the beginning, when both are young. As the boy turns into a teenager, he drifts away to pursue girls, then becomes a man and is consumed with his job and his family. The lonely tree pines away for her little boy and the times they shared together. Every time he comes to visit, he needs something more from her, and she happily gives it to him.
First he needs the fruit from her branches so that he can start a business; later she offers her very limbs so he can build a house for his family; finally, she sacrifices her entire trunk so that he can build a boat to sail away and start a new life. Each time she gives him something, Silverstein writes, “The tree was happy.” When the boy returns as a frail old man, the tree has nothing left to give except her stump, which he uses to sit down and rest his weary bones. Once again, “The tree was happy.”
Though I had not thought about it in years, I remembered the book as a beautiful story of love – deep, unconditional love – and it evoked warm memories from my childhood. I thought she would love it.
But as I flipped the pages, the book took on a new look. Dark shadows crept across the white page as an ominous soundtrack crescendoed in the background of my mind. The sweet little boy morphed into a manipulative little devil who preys upon the unsuspecting tree. Their innocent, loving relationship transformed into a hideous case of domestic abuse, a classic case of a guy bullying a girl into doing what he wants and expecting her to like it. He takes and takes and takes, giving her nothing but scorn. He ignores her, he uses her, he destroys her very being – but he never offers a hint of gratitude, let alone reciprocity.
Yet what does the tree do? She takes it all and responds with a perky “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” kind of joy. She is not a devoted friend; she is a doormat. Instead of telling him to build his own house, she accepts the abuse willingly and even looks forward to it. This is the sort of thing you read about in psychology class or in a police report, after the woman finally has had enough and starts shooting.
From a boy’s perspective, sure, The Giving Tree seems like a wonderful story. The lesson is downright heartwarming: no matter how much of a jerk I am, I can always count on some chick being there to give me what I want. But what does it teach Piper and other girls? That love means “standing by your man,” no matter how much he neglects or abuses you? That love demands unreciprocated sacrifice? That you should be happy with whatever your boy does to you?
Imagine if the sex of the characters in the book were reversed. Seriously, try it. (It’s hard to do because it runs counter to our cultural conditioning – we simply cannot imagine a male putting up with that kind of crap.) Now it’s a little girl relentlessly heaping abuse upon a stoic male tree. Would we fondly remember it as a moving book about love? Probably not – readers would see the girl as a miniature Cruella DeVille and the tree as a spineless wimp. Neither character would come across as sympathetic, and readers would scurry off to safer books with more traditional gender roles. It simply would not be written with the sexes reversed.
As I finished The Giving Tree in the book store, my mind flashed forward about twenty years. Piper is in college and dating a “sweet little boy” like the one in the book. What would I think of their relationship? Would I think it was “beautiful” and “loving”? Would I want her to be the devoted tree giving, giving, giving to an ungrateful lout who neglects her? No! I did not raise her to be a cheerful victim.
In case you think I am being a little over the top on the week of October 18-24th, USA Today ran a story on Shel Silverstein and his risque life. The article reported that Mr. Silverstein was Hugh Hefner's sidekick and was welcome into the inner circle of the Playboy mansion. He fathered two children with Playboy bunnies (fatherered is a loose term since he never spent any time with them) and was reported to have slept with hundreds of women. I can't help but think that this lifestyle influenced his view on women & affected/infected the writing of The Giving Tree.
The bottom line: The Giving Tree is fit for the fireplace and nothing more.