Rachel Kadish’s short story, “The Governess and the Tree,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “The Governess and the Tree” begins with these lines:
Once, in the woods, a tree.
Once in the woods there was a tree with the power to tell the future. The children of the household yearned for its verdicts on their lives, but their governess was wiser.
Give me your tokens, the governess said to the children, and I will take them to the tree and ask your fortune.
Here, Kadish considers her inspiration for the short story:
I sometimes find that a hypothetical question catalyzes a story. What if Albert Einstein had accepted the invitation to assume the presidency of Israel in 1952, instead of declining it? What if Judith Shakespeare hadn’t died without writing a word, as Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own, but had decided to do anything—beg, borrow, steal—in order to be able to write as her brother did?
Last fall I was invited to teach a class on Anna Karenina. It had been years since I’d read the book, so I set to re-reading. Of course I noticed different things this time through…and one of the things that most surprised me was a detail that had made no impression in my earlier reading: as Anna nears the end of her downward spiral, it’s mentioned that she’s writing a book for children. Anna describes her writing fleetingly, but in terms that now riveted me: My writing is like those little carved baskets made in prisons…
Somehow I couldn’t get past this line. At this point in the novel, Anna is considered by all Society to be an unfit mother and worse, and she herself has begun her opium-hazed descent to suicide. What sort of children’s book might Anna Karenina possibly write at this moment in her life?
When gallows humor didn’t succeed in deflecting the question (See the nice choo-choo coming?) I realized that it bothered me enough that I needed to write something to sort out why.
At the same time, my second-grader was coming home with Baba Yaga books from a Russian folktales unit they were doing in school. The darkness of these folktales—and the figure of the evil, child-eating, isolated Baba Yaga—somehow meshed with my image of a desperate Anna sitting down to write.
So I sat down to write a children’s story Anna Karenina might have written, deep in her downward spiral, yet somehow—and this, for me, was the key element–still able to imagine a defiant future. Just as I sometimes try to imagine a surreal Einsteinian Middle East, or a prolific Judith Shakespeare, I wanted, if only for the space of a few pages, to write Anna free.
You can find Rachel Kadish’s posts as a guest blogger through April.