At a recent visit to my children’s pediatrician, the doctor asked, “Have you ever read your kids that children’s book by Faulkner?” He said he read it to his six kids a lot when they were younger, that it was their birthday treat.
(This prescriptive advice wasn’t as random as it sounds. The pediatrician and I tend to talk books, while my children roll their eyes, especially since my first novel came out a few months ago.)
I didn’t know Faulkner had written a children’s book. The doctor looked pleased to have stumped me. He pulled out his prescription pad and wrote "The Wishing Tree" plus WILLIAM FAULKNER, in large letters, in case I forgot.
What, I wondered, would Faulkner have to say to kids? That when you mimic the help, it’s important to get the dialect right? That you shouldn’t drink while doing your homework, only after you’re done?
In academic journals, "The Wishing Tree" is described as Alice in Wonderland–esque, aimed at kids ages 8 to 11. It was originally written in 1927 but not published by Random House until 1964, when one of the children for whom it had been handmade offered it for publication (more later on the awkwardness of this). It had been out of print for years, but there were used copies online in middling condition for $30 to $50.
I tweeted about my curiosity a few times, and someone replied with a tip on a used copy: a former library book, first printing, $3.99 plus shipping. I felt like I’d found a triceratops fossil in a Cracker Jack box.
To be honest, it was more about my intrigue than any conviction my kids would enjoy it. Fast-paced contemporary books, full of suspense and the bells and whistles of modern fantasy, have left them lukewarm to quieter classics with antiquated language. And then there was the question of whether it would even be appropriate for them. Several articles proposed that "The Wishing Tree" was in some ways a training-wheels version of Faulker’s famous, and famously difficult, later novel, "The Sound and the Fury." I remember it well. The strong, doomed sister. The disgruntled black maid carrying the weight of the world and none of the family’s respect. The menacing jaybirds, always swooping. The castrated bellowing family idiot. All of it a big sloshing bouillabaisse of race, sex and social class.
Little in Faulker’s other work suggested an inclination for child's play, either. "As I Lay Dying" is essentially a road trip with a mother’s stinking corpse backward in her pine box, approximately 5,000 narrators, and one chapter that just reads, “My mother is a fish.” "Light in August" has an adulterous, frustrated, menopausal, religious extremist who makes her lover get on his knees and pray at gunpoint. Well, before she gets murdered off.
"The Wishing Tree" arrived, and I read it in an hour. Dick and Jane it is not.
In a nutshell, it’s about a girl who awakens on her birthday to find a strange boy in her room, and embarks on an adventure with him in search of “the wishing tree.” While on their quest, she and others learn about the responsibility of choosing their wishes carefully. Along the way there’s a little violence, more than a little marital hostility, a flourish of swordplay, and a toddler whose cruelty is met with swift surreal punishment. There’s an eccentric cast of extras: a surly maid who rediscovers her runaway soldier of a husband, and a poor white trash old man, and his wife chasing him with a rolling pin. Fair enough. We’re in vintage Southern storytelling terrain here, Faulkner real estate, early and always.
The story’s end climbs out of the rabbit hole and back to reality, with a moral lesson and a tragic subtext. Choose your wishes unselfishly, and your birthday is a playground of opportunity. Only the child of the birthday dreamscape is seriously ill, and her hope that next year's birthday will come with unexpected adventures is far from a given.
Sad, sure. But this isn’t verboten terrain. Children’s books are full of sickly and dying kids, from "Little Women" to "The Velveteen Rabbit" and "The Bridge of Terabithia." If I decided not to read them the Faulkner, it wasn’t the sick child I was protecting them from. But I wasn’t sure yet what I was protecting them from.
One night soon after, school was declared canceled the next day due to bad weather, and my kids were in a mood to break from routine. I sat the older four in the living room, and like some Marmee in the dim light, began to read.
I set it up by telling them the controversy about how the book came to be published, some 40 years after it was written. “Here’s a book by a famous man who wrote it as a gift to an 8-year-old girl whose mom he wanted to marry. Only he didn’t tell her that he also gave it to another girl, a friend’s daughter who was dying of cancer. And then he gave it to two other kids. Each of them thought he’d written it only for them, and were in for a surprise when the first girl published it, and the three others thought they owned the rights.”
My kids were wide-eyed. Regifting and lying? This they could all understand at ages 11, 10, 7 and 5. So uncool. So snagged.
And then we read. Straight, all the way through, 90 minutes. Whenever I stopped to call it a night, they insisted I keep going. When I read the dialogue for the black maid, they asked, "Why are you talking like that?" and, "Why is she hanging around with the kids all the time instead of the parents?" They wanted to know why the maid was so mean to the old white trash guy, and to her husband who came back after running away to the war. And they wanted to know why the old guy’s wife was always hitting him with a rolling pin. We talked, in kid-speak, about the South and the 1920s, about socioeconomic discrimination, stereotyping and horizontal violence.
“Some people aren’t sure this is OK as a kids’ book,” I told them. “Why do you think it might not be?”
My 11-year-old son said (something to the effect of): There are a lot of things that aren’t the way we talk today or treat people today, and maybe they don’t want it to set a bad example. My 10-year-old added: Or maybe in some places they still do treat people that way. My 7-year-old said: What way? And the 5-year-old: Can you stop talking and just read?
It was fascinating to see what caught them up in the book, and what caught them up short. At the end they were full of literal questions, preoccupied with the mechanics of dream travel and the inconsistency of making wishes that came true sometimes, but not always. If it had been "Alice in Wonderland," they wouldn’t have been bothered by the talking rabbit. They would have been hung up on how the Cheshire cat’s smile could be bigger than his eyes and whether that made it harder to eat and why he could still be fat. They were accustomed to books about fantasy; students at sorcery school could ride brooms, after all. But they were also accustomed to thorough editing for consistency, which might not be something given a posthumous Faulkner. To my kids, if a broom could fly one minute, there’d better be a damn good reason it couldn’t fly the next. The things that didn’t make sense made "The Wishing Tree" nonsense to them. But it was fun nonsense. Even while they furrowed their brows, they were entertained.
They called it the best late-story-night ever. And then they argued that if this was a rare book, how would we decide which one of them would get to keep it for their kids? Maybe it would be most fair to come up with a schedule to divide it monthly. But how did 12 months divide evenly among five kids? And so on.
So literal they are. And I realized they might need not just more Faulkner in their lives, but more "Alice in Wonderland."