It is an arresting occurrence and brings back the life of the person for an instant and is mixed with pangs of loss and longing even as we experience the momentary joy of rediscovery of the one who is precious. With the glimpse of their handwriting, once so familiar, and reading their words, the one now absent from us seems somehow also forever present with us. It is a gift from them, like a sudden caress.
A friend recently opened her copy of our family's favorite book of all time, The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy and found a surprise tucked inside the cover. Her books are sprinkled throughout our Top Picks lists and I once published the imaginary letter I wrote to her. Just last evening, the family of the friend who recently passed away from us was here for dinner and we talked about A Tree for Peter, as well as her other special books which they also treasure, special gifts their mother shared with them while she was alive. So imagine my delight to receive word from another friend later last evening that she was sending a letter Kate Seredy once wrote.
How often as a child or even now, have you read a book that caused you to write, if not an actual letter, at least one in your mind, addressed to its author? Have you ever at least wondered to yourself about whether the author was writing about real incidents or characters they knew, had had the experiences they recreated for you to enjoy, or how their imagination had woven together such a story? Usually these questions are forever unanswered. Curiously, we wonder how the author feels and thinks about their own book. This letter from the past sheds light on some of that mystery regarding those questions for this particular book:
Waiting, as I am now doing, for one of the books I've written to reach the boys and girls I've written for is like waiting for rain after a long, hot, tiresome summer day. One can never be sure that rain will come, but one can hope. I can never be sure that boys and girls will like a new book. But, of course, I always hope they will. When they do - it rains! It rains letters full of questions like these: "Is it a true story? Did you know the people the story is about? How did you come to think of the story?
Perhaps I'd better answer these questions here and now - hoping, of course, that the question-rain will come and knowing that all too often I haven't time enough to answer each letter.
All the people in The Chestry Oak are real, and everything that happens to them in the story has happened. I don't mean that I know them, one by one. But I've known boys like Michael, men like his father, and women like Nana; and I often meet people like Pop Brown and his family among my neighbors in Orange County. What happens to Michael in the story has happened to countless boys and girls all over the world. In a way, Michael's story is my own; it is the story of all those who have had to leave their country, their family, and their friends, and make a new life for themselves in America. Yes, it's all real.
Even Midnight, Michael's horse, is real. It's because I met Midnight personally that I came to write the story. Two years ago, I went to the County Fair, where the Army was showing cavalry horses. Among them were some that had been brought over from Europe, and the most beautiful of them all was a black stallion from Hungary. Looking at him, I thought how far away from home he was and yet how little difference it made to him what language people around him were speaking as long as they were kind. And I thought how wonderful it would be if human beings were as wise as horses; if we could stop building barriers of the differences in language, race, color, and creed, and learn the universal language of kindness and understanding.
Stories, like plants, grow from one small seed that falls on fertile ground just at the right time. Seeing the Hungarian stallion Midnight at an American County Fair was the seed from which grew The Chestry Oak. While it grew, it took nourishment from all the things I remember of Hungary and strength from all the things I've learned of America and her people. So The Chestry Oak is my own story, and it is very true."
"I am Hoping for a Rain of Questions" by Kate Seredy, written in 'Young Wings: The Junior Literary Guild, The Book Club for Young Readers' Feb 1949
Again, I thank you, dear Kate, for the love and care you showed in planting that seed, watering and pruning it, so that we could enjoy the fruit. It is a gift from the past that we will treasure and pass down to coming generations.
For the joy of reading,