O the Red Rose Tree by Patricia Beatty
William Morrow and Company, 3rd edition, 1972
Genre: Children’s literature, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review:When thirteen-year old Amanda Barnett and her friends Molly, Jessamine, and Euphemia meet the new neighbor Mrs Hankinson, they’re convinced she’s a witch. But her kindliness and fun spirit soon wins them over, just as her poverty, eccentricity, and pride alienate her from some of Nahcotta’s adults, including Amanda’s crotchety grandmother. To show up Grandma Barnett for her snobbery and rudeness, Amanda and the girls offer to help Mrs Hankinson find seven true reds so that she can make the quilt she’s dreamt of for the last sixty-three years of her life, the pattern O the Red Rose Tree–and in the bargain, show up Grandma by winning first prize at the County Fair.
Amanda has her shiftless but handsome brother Allen make a quiltframe for Mrs Hankinson while the girls work on finding seven different reds. On Washington’s Peninsula in 1983, this poses no small task, as the most common red in America is the cochineal-dyed Turkey red. Other than the ubiquitous Turkey red, all other true reds are European and very expensive, but where there’s a will, the girls will find a way. They will brave galloping pneumonia, Kissing John, shipwrecks, a flooded Portland, and do whatever it takes to help Mrs Hankinson.
This was the book I was looking for forever, and I must say, it was worth all the effort. Out of the three Patricia Beatty books I remember reading, and so have re-read this past month, O the Red Rose Tree was by far the best. It is an absolute delight, from the realistic setting and sympathetic characters to the charming illustrations by Liz Dauber.
Though easily amusing like Melinda Takes a Hand or Lacy Makes a Match, O the Red Rose Tree also has some very serious things to say about the nature of friendship and the obligation to care for others in our community. Beatty manages to incorporate these more serious elements without ever being preachy, instead keeping a very down to earth and honest feel. She also has created some very lively and heartfelt characters; we feel along with Amanda and her friends when they want to take up Mrs Hankinson’s cause, and when they want to shirk. Her voice and prose is very clear, direct, and natural, without the occasional stilted or forced feeling that is present in the other two books. It is also full of fascinating historical details, many of which came from Beatty’s own family and community on the Peninsula (as mentioned in the Author’s Note), which adds to the authenticity of her setting and characters. There is some dialect spoken by Chinese characters which might be seen as questionable in today’s political climate, but I feel that the characters were treated with dignity and respect.
All I could remember about O the Red Rose Tree was the detail about the seven true reds (reds that don’t bleed out when washed), and that someone in it took a trip to a big city (I thought it was San Francisco). On those two small details alone I hunted for the book, going through the Multnomah County Library Catalog, Amazon, LibraryThing, and finally finding it on WorldCat after looking through every juvenile book on quilting I could find. And it was worth it; I am thrilled to have my own copy to one day share with my own children. On the other hand, the experience of finding it, re-reading it, and enjoying it left me frustrated that there are so many worthwhile and excellent children’s books out of print.
Highly recommended for all readers, especially those with an interest in Pacific Northwest history and/or quilting.
Cover: Mrs Hankinson and Amanda before the quilt (though the rose colors are wrong).
She patted Martha Washington’s Flower Garden on her lapas if it had been her cat, closed her eyes, and then surprised us by beginning to talk about something else entirely. “My husband was a singin’ man back in Kentucky. He loved them old, old ballads that come over from England with our people before George Washington ever got born. My husband liked to sing about red roses.” When she opened her eyes, they were misty. “He always said the red rose was the only real rose. He didn’t want no truck at all with yellow ones or pink ones. Sometimes he’d say that old poem aloud about a man;s love bein’ like a red, red rose. And then he’d sing to me about the two doomed lovers, the fine lord and fair lady. Do you know about them two? There’s somethin’ about a red rose in that ballad.”