PTSD and The Singing Tree

The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, 1939, is a children’s book that illustrated PTSD for me long before I went to medical school. The Singing Tree is the sequel to The Good Master, and describes the survival of a Hungarian family and farm during World War I.

The good master is Marton Nagy, and he is called up as a Corporal, leaving the farm to be cared for by his wife, son, niece and workers. The farm suffers because so many men are called up. They are getting behind on the work and then find a diary from Marton, which gives suggestions and instructions for the year round work on the farm. One of the instructions is “to make out an application for Russian prisoners if necessary.”

They do. They apply and take 6 Russian prisoners, homesick farmers, who don’t speak Hungarian. Jansi and his cousin Kate take the chains off them and the prisoners quickly become part of the family. “Comrade, eh? Friend?” says one of the prisoners. And they are. They are also excellent workers and homesick.

As the prisoners are taken home in the wagon, they also take Peter, a deserter from the Hungarian army. He has panicked about his wife and new baby. He is crazy with worry. He is hidden under the six Russians, who sympathize. After seeing the baby he returns to his regiment. But Peter is angry and expresses his rage at Jews, even though it is Uncle Moses, the Jewish shopkeeper, who has helped hide him.

    Mother took Jancsi’s arm then and they left he room. They didn’t speak; what was there to say? Something, somebody had poisoned Peter’s soul against those who had been good to him all his life. Into Jancsi’s mind flashed the words Father had said: “The stampede… the mad whirlwind that sucks in men…and spits out crippled wrecks.” Crippled in body and soul, Jansci thought then, with an understanding far beyond his years.
    “Poor Peter,” he said aloud. Mother pressed his arm. “I knew you would see it that way, Son. I only hope the war ends before this poison has spread too far.” p 163.

Marton is missing and they have not heard from him. Jansci and Kate make the wagon trek to bring back their grandparents, because the front is now too close for them to be safe. Kate and Lily smuggle the cat along. The cat gets “sick” and the girls insist at stopping at a hospital. The sickness is kittens. The nurses laugh at the girls, but then let them help on the wards. Injured soldiers who are healing.

    “Almost an hour passed before all the patients had been fed. “There was only one asleep,” Lily said, coming back with the empty bowls; “he even had the sheet pulled over his face.” The nurse followed Lily’s pointing finger with her eyes. “Oh, the amnesia case. He sleeps most of the time.”

    “Whats am-amnesia?” Kate wanted to know.

    “Loss of memory. They forget who they are and have to begin life all over again; like babies.” “Does it hurt?”
    “No,” smiled the nurse. “It comes from a shock; like a big scare, you know.” She looked toward the bed again. “He is such a nice man too, poor fellow. He tries so hard to remember. if we could find out who he is, find something to remind of his home, he might remember. You wan tto see him?” she asked as Kate kept staring at the bed. “Come on then, but be quiet.”
    “No. 54, Amnesia,” was written on the headboard. The nurse gently lifted the sheet. Pandemonium broke loose immediately. Kate, with her famous tin-whistle scream gong at full blast, threw herself on the bed. “UNCLE MARTON! UNCLE MAAARTON! IT’S KATE. Can’t you….? UNCLE MARTO-O-O-ON!”

    Every patient was sitting bolt upright. Doctors and nurses were running in, Lily joined Kate, tugging at Uncle Marton’s hands. “Say something…you know us, don’t you? Say something.”

    “Kate, if you don’t stop that infamous yelling this minute, I’ll take Milky away from…Say! Where am I? Who are these people?” Uncle Marton was looking around dazedly.

    “Never mind them,” sobbed Kate, laughing at the same time. “You know who you are now, don’t you?”

    “Why shouldn’t I? Let me out of this bed!” Uncle Marton cried, trying to peel Kate and Lily off his chest.
    “Take it easy, take it easy,” said a doctor who stepped up. “What is your name?” “Lieutenant Marton Nagy of the Seventh Infantry,” snapped Uncle Marton, glaring at him. “Seventh Infantry… Seventh…oh…”His eyes clouded.
    “Now it all comes back, doesn’t it? You’ll be all right now, Lieutenant Nagy. Don’t think about that now. Tell me who this…this calliope is. That scream was the best I ever heard.” The doctor sat down on the bed, smiling at Kate. “I wish we could produce for each amnesia case we get; we wouldn’t have any.” pp 186-189

He gets to go home.

    “From Corporal to Lieutenant in a year. Pretty good, Lieutenant Nagy,” an officer with a lot of gold braid all over him said to Father. “And a handful of medals to catch up with you, as I heard. What did you do?”
    Father looked him straight in the eye. The muscles in his jaws were working. “I don’t know sir. I would rather not try to remember.”

    The officer sighed. “Go home, Lieutenant. Forget, if you can. I wish I could.”

And will he have to return?

    “Then Father went to report to the hospital and this time Mother and Jansci went with him. The doctors found that in body he was sound, but only time, long months or even years, could make him forget the things he never spoke about.
    “There are none braver than he is,” the doctor told Mother, “but the human mind can stand just so much of horror and no more. We dare not tke the risk of sending him back to war.”
    “Thank God!” Mother had exclaimed, and the doctor smiled very sadly.
    “I hear that every day now. Wives, mothers thanking the Lord for an injury their beloved ones have received. A broken bone, a brave mind darkened with nameless fear, anything that takes a long time to heal, has become a blessing, a gift. They are safe for a little while longer.”

And Jansci talks to one of the Russian prisoners.

    “Big boss come home…maybe war over?” Grigori wanted to know when they had come with Father. Jansci tried to explain and he thought that Grigori didn’t understand because for a long while he didn’t say anything. Then he sighed: “Grigori know. Hear, Jansci. Bad man, stupid man, he go kill and laugh. Good man, man with good heart, good head, no can kill and laugh. He cry inside. Baby cry with big noise. Man cry–no noise, but it hurt very bad. Me know….me know.” p. 203

Death affects the village.

    “More white envelopes were coming to the village now than ever since the war started. The hands of Uncle Moses began to tremble and he seemed to grow smaller, more bent. Aunt Sarah was like a silent little wraith, going from house to house to comfort, to help, or just sit, holding the hand of a woman who would never wait for the mail again because there was no one left to writ to her. Often she and priest met in one of the houses and the priest would bow deeply to her Once he told Father: “She seems to give more comfort, more strength to these poor women than I can.” pp 203-204

I wish that we had the sense expressed in this book about PTSD and the effects of war. When I worked at Madigan Army Hospital, some soldiers were getting ready for their fourth or fifth tour of duty. If we as a country are going to continue these wars, we must take more responsibility and have more care for the damage done. When people talk about “curing” PTSD or keeping it from happening: if we didn’t respond with PTSD as a species with horror for the evils of war, we don’t deserve to survive. We will be the Bad People, the Stupid People, who Kill and Laugh. We need to stop. This book was written in 1939 and clearly they knew the effects of PTSD. It’s been almost 80 years since Kate Seredy’s book was published: and still we question PTSD?

http://www.pdhealth.mil/clinicians/assessment_tools.asp
Civilians too: http://www.mirecc.va.gov/docs/visn6/3_PTSD_CheckList_and_Scoring.pdf

illustration from p. 187

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