The idea for The Tree of Life began in 1999 when the public school my daughters attended held a centennial celebration. The classrooms became decade rooms filled with memorabilia, photographs, letters, magazines and period clothing. Many years later I decided to take this centennial celebration as the starting point for a novel. What might happen if two eleven year old children, Charlotte Lisa Hansen and Henry Jacobs, researching the 1930’s, were suddenly transported to the end of that decade and given a problem to solve? Might the adventure be a dream, an extension of Charlotte’s very active imagination and Henry’s eidetic memory or might it be the truth?
Robert Schumann’s piano suite, Kinderszenen (The Songs of Childhood) was another inspiration. It begins with Of Foreign Lands and Strange People and Charlie MacFarlane might very well be playing this opening piece when Charlotte and Henry awake under a table in a summerhouse and confronted with Gwendolyn and Sarah, and a world on the brink of war. “What the…”Charlotte thinks when she sees the Tom Mix posters and the Shirley Temple dolls and Henry says: “Somebody up at the house is playing the Kinderszenen a whole lot better than I can.” Charlotte and Henry are in Toronto, in their very own neighborhood but they might as well be in China. They have been transported to a foreign land and are about to connect with a whole lot of strange people.
Initially The Tree of Life was called The Songs of Childhood but in those days the music was more integrated into the story than it is now. But the pieces still remain; a careful reader will find many references.
Dylan Thomas’s great poem Fern Hill is another source I drew upon. I have a copy of The Penguin Book of English Verse edited by John Hayward. It cost $1.00 and is in tatters. I also have, buried somewhere in the basement, an LP record with Richard Burton reading Fern Hill. Burton begins by simply telling a story – “Now as I was young and easy” – his voice modulated and calm but soon emotion takes over and the beauty and fragility of this child’s journey through time begins.
Charlotte and Henry are on the cusp of pubescence but still firmly entrenched in the mysteries and joys of childhood. They are motivated by imagination and exploration and a freedom that is as tensile as steel. Flashing like bright stars they live the adventure.
And finally You Can’t Take it With You, the Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman had a tremendous influence on me when I first saw it as a young child. I wanted to live in Grandpa’s house forever. I wanted to dance in ballet shoes as I set the dining room table and have a kitten to use as a paperweight as I wrote a novel that would never end, and make firecrackers in the basement, hand out leaflets with messages I didn’t understand, play the xylophone and maybe later, when I was grown up, find a handsome, kind man who would cherish me.
But You Can’t Take it With You wasn’t all good times and happy faces. A corrupt man, who is broken, kills himself; another sees his world crumbling and reaches for redemption; people help one another and all is saved – sealed with good fellowship by, of all things, a harmonica duet. “Fare thee well, fare thee well.” This movie taught me there is always a second chance for everyone,
Decades later, when the characters in The Tree of Life began to emerge it was no accident that Charlotte had to live with her grandfather (who else would let her be who she was) in a crumbling old mansion filled with secrets, eccentric visitors, and the smell of baking and warm welcome.
But most essential, people who passed through the doors of this peculiar house, had to be given a second chance, if they wanted it. All it took was a fragment of memory, a longing, and recognition of our shared humanity to find a better way.
The Tree of Life is Davis’s debut novel, and the first book in her Tower Room series.
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