The Halloween Tree
Halloween is approaching, and as it gets closer I’ve found myself thinking about the books that are associated with the holiday. The two that immediately come to mind are Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Charles Schultz’s It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. Both are considered classics that contain important life lessons – albeit mostly for younger children. If, however, you’re looking for a book for an older child, or are even trying to rekindle the spirit of Halloween for yourself, you might pick up Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.
The Halloween Tree is the story about eight boys aged twelve and thirteen who gather to go trick or treating on Halloween night. When the boys discover that their best friend Joe Pipkin is not among them, they race off to his house to bring him along for the evening’s fun. Pipkin comes to the door but seems to be slightly ill and isn’t wearing a costume. He tells his friends not to worry and to meet him later at a haunted house on the other side of town.
As the boys assemble there they meet Mr. Moundshroud, the owner of the house, a somewhat sinister and skeletal older gentleman. The house is old and falling into disrepair but outside stands an enormous tree, hung with a thousand jack-o-lanterns, each with a different face carved into them. As the boys stare at the tree, the jack-o-lanterns suddenly light up, giving the boys a good scare by nearly sucking them all into a great pile of leaves at the tree’s base. From the pile of leaves rises Moundshroud to declare his “trick” a success. He notices the boy’s costumes – an ape, a beggar, a druid, a gargoyle, a ghost, a mummy, a skeleton and a witch – and asks them if they know the meaning of their attire. When they fail to answer him correctly, he chastises them and asks if they’d like to go on a trip to discover their meanings.
Suddenly Pipkin appears, but almost as soon as they see him, he is carried off by a dark wind. Moundshroud takes the boys on a journey in a dual effort to save Pipkin and teach them the history of the holiday, and the meaning behind their costumes. They work feverishly to create an enormous kite of which they become the tail, to travel through the dark night sky. They fly back through time, visiting different countries and cultures as they witness the customs of preparing and celebrating the dead, including ancient Egypt, and Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). As the boys become more and more concerned for their friend’s well-being, Moundshroud informs them that as their journey progresses, their lives will be put at risk, and they may not survive it at all. He tells them that they will have to make a choice: in order to save their friend’s life, they may have to sacrifice their own. The boys agree to continue on so that Pipkin may be saved.
There are many reasons to give this book a read, starting with Bradbury’s writing style. He does a fantastic job of invoking the memories of what it was like to be in those in-between years, when you had just enough independence and none of the angst that comes with the mid-teens.
Eight boys made a series of beautiful leaps over flowerpots, rails, dead ferns and bushes, landing on their own dry-starched front lawns. Galloping, rushing, they seized a final sheet, adjusted a last mask, tugged at strange mushroom caps or wigs, shouting at the way the wind took them along, helped their running, glad of the wind, or cursing as masks fell off or hung sidewise or stuffed up their noses with a muslin smell like a dog’s hot breath. Or just letting the sheer exhilaration of being alive and out on this night pull their lungs and shape their throats into a yell and a yell and a…yeeeeellll!
The book is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday. The aroma of pumpkins being carved and baked in pies, cobwebs and dust issuing from mummies, and the eerie chants of voices in a funeral procession all serve to bring the reader directly into the story. With The Halloween Tree, Bradbury has provided the reader with not only a beautiful and eerie story about the origins of Halloween but also touches on the importance of friendship, bravery and determination that one doesn’t always associate with the holiday. While it really isn’t a suitable book for children under 12, The Halloween Tree is a wonderful read for teenagers and adults alike.