CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 3 . . . . October 1, 2004
The award-winning Australian duo of author Crew and illustrator Tan have combined in this powerful story about a tree which was planted as a living memorial at a crossroads in an Australian community following World War I. On that day in 1918, a Moreton Bay Fig tree, an evergreen, was put into the ground next to the statue of the unknown soldier, and the community's mayor had said, "I declare this place a Shrine of Remembrance. Lest we forget." Over the years, the growing tree, part of a grassed park, welcomed back the survivors of World War II and the Vietnam War. However, the park's grassy surface has been covered over with bitumen [tar], and the wide shade tree's expanding roots have caused the statue to tilt. Because of increased traffic, the council has decided that either the tree or the statue must go.
The story of the tree's history is told to an unnamed boy [young man?] by three generations of his family who have each had a personal connection to the tree. Old Pa, the boy's great grandfather, was one of the five town boys who survived the trenches of the Great War, and it was his future wife, a nurse, who actually placed the tree in the ground on behalf of the veteran who had lost his legs to shrapnel. Pa, the boy's grandfather, recalls playing in the tree, being welcomed back from World War II under it, and courting his future wife beneath it. As children, the boy's father and mother also played in the tree's spreading limbs, and the tree also was the site of another memorial service in 1972 following the boy's father's return from Vietnam. However, three decades have passed since Australia's last involvement in war, and the tree's original purpose has apparently been forgotten.
The boy/young man decides to challenge the council, but Old Pa replies, 'They'll beat you, son,' he says. The big boys will beat you every time. They'll chop you to bits...' Despite Old Pa's seeming pessimism, he still encourages his great-grandson to engage in the fight for the tree because 'It's the fight in you they'll remember. That memory won't die - not like my old bones. Even concrete and rock won't last forever. But memories, now they're different. Memories, they're ever-living things.' The closing pair of illustrations, not the text, reveal the outcome of the boy's encounter with the council.
Crew's text, while sparse, nevertheless brings each of the book's four major players alive while Tan's illustrations, with their variety of perspectives, demand the reader's active engagement with them for they tell a story beyond that provided by the text.
Though Memorial utilizes a picturebook format, its content, both text and illustrations, will be more fully appreciated by an older, more socially conscious audience. Despite its Australian origins, Memorial will not be out of place in any North American middle or senior school classroom or public library. Memorial should also become a staple of November 11 Remembrance Day observances.
An absolute must-buy!
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and YA literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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