Spirituality, Weekend Write-Off

The Red Tree: A Child’s Story, A Depressive Tale, and an Allegory All in One

Imagine not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Not because you stayed up too late or the air is too cold – but because “the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” Forcing yourself out of bed only makes “things go from bad to worse.” You maneuver through a world that “is a deaf machine”; where “darkness overcomes you” and “nobody understands”. Ironically, you are on the inside – locked there by regret – looking out at the “wonderful things [] passing you by.”

Now, imagine you are a child.

In Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, a young girl is the one going through all these machinations, these miserable feelings. The book jacket summary lists them as “inexplicable feelings”, which though they are, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had them. The swirling, at times, surreal illustrations Tan has created to accompany his text add an otherworldly depth that show their meaning perhaps more than the words can. Upon repeated inspection, you find more and more layers of detail and meaning.

This could be a story of a child trying to find her place in the world, which certainly can be daunting itself. I, however, saw deeper evidence of despair. Perhaps my dark lens of depression is translating the clues to match my view, but Tan’s story seems very much to match the trajectory of depression. This book is an amazingly evocative, yet straightforward treatment of a condition that words often fail. It would be perfect for children who may be suffering – either themselves or through someone close to them – to understand what’s happening and that they are not alone. My depressed self sees utter value in that. My paranoid mother hen heart breaks at the thought of a child suffering this way, scared that my own brood may be subjected it. I would call this required reading for struggling adults and extremely-valuable-but-hope-you-never-have-use-it with children.

Still, there is a thread of hope at the end of the story, that doesn’t always come with depression. Just as “the day seems to end the way it began, [] suddenly there it is right in front of you bright and vivid quietly waiting just as you imagined it would be.” In the book, it is a red tree growing from the center of her room that makes the girl smile. I wanted to shake the book and say, “But what is it? Why can’t I find the solution so easily? Just make it appear?” That’s when I thought maybe I was approaching this as a downward motion rather than from the bottom up.

I leafed through the pages once more, searching for the flashes of red I’d only slightly registered the first time. As the girl awakens on the first page, a red leaf is mounted on the wall above her bed. While black leaves swirl around her, the red leaf follows her through every scene. At times, it lies forlornly on the ground or is buffeted by the wind, but it is always there. When she returns to the quiet reflection of her room at the end of the day, there is a small red sprout, which quickly grows in the beam of light shining through the door she opens.

Though I didn’t realize it until I had reached rock bottom, that red leaf of the Holy Spirit followed me around the whole time. It waited patiently for me to open the door so I could flourish in God’s light and love. So instead of some magic trick I hoped to perform, healing myself, I just had to open myself to the guidance and care that was there all along.

How perfect that this epiphany came in time for this Good Friday. Even when Christ was at his lowest, He called out to the Father. He suffered so that we may have peace. And just as importantly, God never abandoned Him through all his trials.

Now I just need to be open to God’s uplifting power rather than the downward pull of depression.

* All quotes from Tan, Shaun.  The Red Tree.  Vancouver: Simply Read Books, 2008.



2 thoughts on “The Red Tree: A Child’s Story, A Depressive Tale, and an Allegory All in One

  1. Sheri says:

    Isn’t it encouraging to know that God is always present–in our joy and suffering. But knowing and trusting are different. Pastor Rick Warren suggests their are 3 types of days: suffering (Good Friday), doubt (Saturday), and hope/joy (Easter Sunday). We are meant to enjoy and share God’s story in all of them. But how much easier it is when we feel the hope and joy. I know for me, however, that when things are easy, I risk thinking I can do them on my own.


    • Jennifer Butler Basile says:

      Very true. I like the breakdown of types of days. While I spend most of my days in doubt, makes me feel better than thinking all days are suffering.


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