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tree of freedom

18 february 2023

I'll comment only briefly on Tree of Freedom, a Newbery runner-up from 1949 by Rebecca Caudill. It makes very painful reading. Caudill's treatment of Native Americans is appalling, one of those things where you have to shake your head over the attitudes of white Americans in the not-so-distant past.

During the American Revolution, the Venables set out from North Carolina for Kentucky. Mammy Bertha is an effete de Monchard from France by way of Charleston; Pappy Jonathan is a wanderlusty nobody of pure Saxon stock who has tumbled out of Maryland and is always on his manifestly destined way westward. Our reflector-character, hybrid of these two strains, is Stephanie, who carries a French appleseed to plant in Kentucky as her "tree of freedom," because for some reason Kentucky is freer than North Carolina.

Except it isn't; Kentucky is full of bad cheating speculators and worse, savage "red men" who live to scalp decent freedom-loving white folks. The Venables see Kentucky as a parcel of "waste and unappropriated lands" (59) and clearly do not think that the Indians have a right to freedom of their own in this unsurveyed wilderness, or any call to object to European intrusion. Meanwhile we never quite learn why the Venables' drive toward "freedom" is admirable. Mostly it consists of them feeling entitled, or simply being bloodier-minded than the weaklings who are thrust to the wall or left behind.

Tree of Freedom is not just racist, it's boring. Vast chapters consist of nattering about the progress of the Revolution and detailing complicated land transactions. You'd wonder what the author, illustrator, publishers, and librarians who promoted this book were thinking. Except that this is simply America of the mid-20th-century, where such tales of we're-getting-ours met with general approval from non-Natives. I suppose that by reading it we could keep alive a "history" of such racism. But unless you feel compelled to rehearse such traumas, better that I read the book and you don't have to.

Caudill, Rebecca. Tree of Freedom. 1949. Illustrated by Dorothy Bayley Morse. New York: Viking, 1950.