The Red Tree, by Shaun Tan

redtree1Fair warning – I want to discuss what this book means to me, which means I will talk about everything, including the end. While the book is more about the journey and less about what happens, if you don’t want spoilers, you’ll want to skip this.

The Red Tree is a tiny chidren’s picture book focusing on depression. It follows a girl as she wakes up with nothing to look forward to and is consumed by darkness, until the end of the day when she finds the red tree. I had to read the book twice to really understand my feelings and interpretation of it. I’m going to walk through what I felt while reading.

First, I picked up the book on a day that I felt awful. I hadn’t slept, I was carrying huge depressing loads inside me, and the day started with one of my kids having a stomach virus. Not fun. I had a headache all day and needed to sleep. I took the book back with me to read before I tried (and failed) to take a nap. By that point, I was already on the verge of tears. I flipped the book to the back cover and read the words, “sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to”. And I cried. Immediately.

I took this book to read in particular because Chris had told me several times that this was his go-to book when he’s depressed or upset, and I thought – that’s exactly what I need. Something that will help me here in this mood. So I began to read. The book starts with the same opening line and only gets worse. Each new page is a new look at the way depression feels. It was miserable and heartbreaking, but strangely comforting in the sense that I could relate to it at that moment. I went along this journey with the unnamed little girl.

But then came the last two panels, which say, “but suddenly there it is / right in front of you / bright and vivid / quietly waiting // just as you imagined it would be”. On the first panel, the girl finds a bright red leaf (in contrast to the black dead leaves floating down over her when she woke up), and in the second, that leaf has grown into a glowing, beautiful red tree that she smiles up at.

I admit, those panels were really jarring after the dark, melancholy ones before. I didn’t quite understand. My first thoughts were that the panels were dishonest, because when you’re depressed, there is no magical solution to come along and just fix things. Only I wasn’t sure, because twice in my life now, in the spring of ’99 and the fall of ’07, a magical solution did come to me unexpectedly and lifted years worth of burden. And sometimes that happens. It’s unpredictable and uncommon, but it happens. So I was conflicted about the end.

Then I saw Jason and Chris discussing their thoughts about the book on Twitter. Jason felt the end implied that people who were depressed were being told they ought to just find something happy and “get over it.” He really hated the ending, though he loved the rest. Chris felt more like it was saying there were good things all over and this was taking time to look at them. (Sorry guys, I’m paraphrasing you, hopefully not misrepresenting you!) Their thoughts made me think, because I was right in the middle of them. An idea kept spinning in my head and then I made a decision. I needed to go back and reread.

I reread it that afternoon, slowly, and on each page I looked. On each page, there was a red leaf. Sometimes partially obscured, sometimes in plain sight. But always there, even though the little girl didn’t see it. And in seeing this, the end was no longer so jarring. I realized how I interpreted that tree:

There are beautiful things around us that we usually cannot see when we are so consumed with depression. Every once in awhile, though, we will catch sight of one, and when we do, it will not seem like a little thing. That red leaf, that tiny beautiful thing, will feel so much more, like a Red Tree, in contrast to all the other misery in our lives. And that happy thing that feels so wonderful – what happens to it overnight? Well, sometimes it dies, and the leaves turn black and rain down on us by the time we wake up. That is the fleeting nature of happiness when we suffer from depression. But still, there is a happy spot to grasp at in every place in our lives, if we can manage to see it. We usually won’t, but when we do, it is a beautiful thing.

I love the ending now. I understand it so much more, and I feel such a connection to this book. This is one I want to keep with me forever. I’m really happy I was able to sort through my thoughts and make the book my own.

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2010, Children's, Visual and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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