Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: "This Very Tree"

Back in 2007 when I read and loved her At Midnight on the Thirty-First of March (my review here) I hunted around online and bought up copies of the rest of Josephine Young Case's books (Freedom's Farm, Written in Sand, and This Very Tree). I stumbled across them on my shelves yesterday and pulled This Very Tree (Houghton Mifflin, 1969) off and started reading. It's a short book (just 118 pages), but proved a really nice way to spend an hour or so on the porch.

Our narrator is the wife of the president of a small liberal arts college in rural upstate New York. Looking for something to do in her spare time, she volunteers to help a retired professor who's working on a history of "the College" from its orgins to the present. At the same time, she's helping her husband cope with a famous alumnus of the College, who wants to give a very large gift ... but to build a "Tower of Trade, housing the G. Tuckerman Butterweck School of Commerce," not the desperately-needed new library. It's a timeless meditation on the difficult dilemmas faced by all similar institutions: donor desires versus the actual needs and priorities of the place.

I won't spoil the plot, since you ought to read the book yourself (Case's books, while out of print, can be obtained quite afforably online); in fact for this one I'd go so far as to say that it ought to be required reading for the trustees and administrators of all small liberal arts colleges and non-profit institutions. A bit saccharine though it may be, it's also a really poignant story, with moments of real humor and insight.

Case knew of what she spoke. Her husband was president of Colgate, and Case herself was Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Skidmore for many years. Her descriptions of small colleges and the characters who populate them ring true: I found myself nodding along so many times. She examines the internal musings of alumni, back for Homecoming: "I understand that what they want to say and cannot is: We deeply cherish this place, these lawns, these trees, these very stones, because of what went on here, without and within. With this ground we are more nearly one than elsewhere, it is forever part of us, from mornings when the first warmth of spring touched the snowbanks, from nights when the moon glittered on the river, from October days like this one: for here, then, voices spoke to us, from books, from men, from the trees and stones themselves, perhaps once only, or again" (p. 11).

A troubled student who comes to her for advice is described as "badly afflicted with Wanderlust and Weltschmerz and all the things with German names that torture the young" (p. 35). The retired professor describes a predecessor this way: "He looked like a woodchuck in his study; his papers and books made a burrow around him. I think he liked the physical presence of books more than reading them; they were good to build burrows with" (p. 9). (That particular line brought to mind a couple of my favorite professors).

A lovely little book, and really well produced by Houghton Mifflin.

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