Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

There and Back Again

The Chestry Oak, by Kate Seredy (Purple House Press, 254 pp., $12.95)

As I think back on all the years during which, as a child, I loved good stories, and all the years during which, as a mother, I sought the best stories for my children, and all the years during which, as a teacher, I have done the same for other people’s children, I do not find a better story than Kate Seredy’s The Chestry Oak, first published in 1948. Yes, it is quite as good as, though different from, the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, the best of Hilda van Stockum, and good old Charlotte’s Web.

In recent years, Puffin had the sense to reprint some of Seredy’s other excellent books, but somehow Chestry remained out of print for decades, and the price of old hardcover editions rose above $300 — perhaps in some cases on account of the book’s investment value, but for other reasons, as well. At last, Purple House Press (its website is worth a visit) has reprinted this splendid book. Intelligent, critical-minded, well-read adults are crying and laughing over it, all over again. As I write, the boys in my junior-high English class are doing that, too; and many of the students in our high school are wishing they could read it again. (Of course they can, once they get through their AP exams, this spring.)

The story begins in Hungary just before World War II, when Michael, a hereditary prince, in line to rule a small valley, is very young indeed. His nurse, Mari Vitez, a splendid and important character, tells him again, for it is one of Michael’s favorite stories, of the night he was born. Michael’s father, the Prince, chose her to be Michael’s nurse, that night, because she put into words the strength of the people of the valley: “Look upon us and listen. We are the furrow and the harvest; we are the spring. . . . We are the roots and the mighty tree. We are the bedrock and the stones that made the castle. . . . We are the sword, the plough, the cross upon the spire of the church.”

Very early in the book, Nazi officials make Chestry Castle their headquarters for the occupation of Hungary and even for the direction of the invasion of Russia; Michael’s father is universally considered a collaborator. Michael’s beloved French and English tutors are replaced by a German officer, who participates in the rule of the castle. An elderly servant, Antal, grieves that Michael’s mind is being poisoned; Mari Vitez assures him: “There is nothing they can do during the day that I cannot undo at night.”

Among the matters the Nazis cannot undo is the old, old story of the first Prince of Chestry, who was given his title and his land by Saint Stephen of Hungary, in the shade of the now venerable tree, the Chestry Oak, in a.d. 1000. Seredy has Michael tell that story to another old retainer, just as a young boy would tell it, and of course English teachers rejoice at the chance to identify the theme of the past alive in the present.

Each Prince of Chestry is bound to plant an acorn of that tree on his seventh birthday, but Michael’s acorn will not be safe, if planted during the war; moreover, it flies from the old oak onto Michael’s saddle with “wings,” oak leaves, and Mari says this may mean Michael will have to plant his acorn far from the valley.

In a fearful chapter, Michael is lost, escaping from an air raid that kills the Nazis in Chestry Castle and destroys the castle. He goes from camp to camp of displaced persons, and is adopted at last by a farm family in northern Vermont. (Here the new edition’s jacket detail is wrong: “God’s Country” means the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, not the Hudson Valley of New York.)

As the son of a prince first beloved and then hated, and then as an orphan, and then as an adopted son on an American farm, Michael confronts the perennial literary theme of paternity, identity, and destiny. Also, since Sugarloaf Mountain in Vermont resembles Chestry Hill, and the beautiful farmland of the Northeast Kingdom resembles Chestry Valley, Michael finds the old theme of there-and-back-again, in a chapter titled “My Valley Found Me.” Michael finds again the English language that he loved as a child, as well as the GI who met him in a displaced-persons camp and sent him to a new home; the theme of lost-and-found is very strong. I refuse to spoil the story by mentioning how beautifully Seredy brings in the theme of redemption.

All of this makes for an excellent book to teach to children, as I have done with this volume many times. But the book is actually much better than that would suggest: Even the minor characters are beautifully drawn, and the major ones are inspiring, both heroic and believable. Seredy gives them humor, too — often the humor that freedom-loving people use to assert their humanity, and their sense of reality, in the face of tyranny. When Michael’s Nazi tutor pins to the castle bulletin board the 40th report that heroic German forces have again taken far more of Stalingrad in street-to-street fighting, Mari Vitez observes that Stalingrad must be a very large place, larger even than Russia.

The prose is perfect: vivid and often poetic. Seredy is making the boys in my junior-high classroom believe in the Chestry motto: “Fear none but the Lord; harm none but evil.”

Elizabeth Altham is a writer and an instructor at Sacred Heart Academy in Rockford, Ill. She is a former editor of Sursum Corda and the author of The Misplaced Spy, a young-adult spy story of the Cold War.

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