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Self-sustaining Economies and Ageless Children's Literature: The Good Master

“Salt, maybe some sugar,” commented the Romanian taxi driver. He was pleased to share a part of his life story. He had grown up on a farm that provided almost all they needed. They did not buy much—salt, maybe some sugar. They grew what they needed. They made what they needed. Maybe they would trade with some neighbors. This whole and hale way of life was a fond remembrance for the driver, yet there was also the bittersweetness of remembering a way of life now gone. The longing for such a way of life—a self-sufficient life lived in harmony with nature and neighbor—seems to be sown deeply in the human consciousness. It is no surprise to hear people recalling, mourning, lauding, and seeking to reestablish this life which flourishes or recedes with the changing whims and pressures of the ages. Nor is it a surprise to see these themes entwined in our art and literature. In particular, in children’s literature it is a theme that was quite close to the heart of author and illustrator Kate Seredy. She dealt with the topic hilariously in The Open Gate and seriously in the The Singing Tree. In The Good Master she sang its praises. Set in Hungary in the early 1900s, The Good Master is based on Seredy’s childhood and her experiences of many summers living in the Hungarian countryside. The story gives us a look at what it was like to live in a self-sufficient economy. But what is needed for such an economy to work, to truly function, and to provide for not just one but for many? Seredy’s book suggests that at least one of the answers to this question is a great man who is skilled, respected, and generous.

The title and the closing illustration of Kate Seredy’s book The Good Master point to the figure of Márton Nagy. Yet whimsically every chapter is about Kate, the spoiled niece who comes to live in his household, and about his son Jancsi. Still this shift in focus works nicely to draw the character of the Good Master. We see that the Good Master is a man who has carved out a wholesome and abundant life not just for himself, but for his family, his workmen, and all whom he chooses to bring into his household. We learn who the Good Master is not by looking inward at his person but by looking at what emanates outward from his actions.

Who is the Good Master? According to his son Jancsi, he is a rancher “with thousands of sheep, horses, cows and pigs. He had chickens and ducks and geese; he even had donkeys, but he didn’t have enough children to suit Jancsi.” The Good Master does, however, have a heart large enough to take in Jancsi’s cousin Kate. Jancsi is delighted for cousin Kate will be a cure to his loneliness. “Cousin Kate would have golden curls, rosy cheeks, big blue eyes; she would wear a white silk flowing gown, and her voice would be like honey.” Cousin Kate actually turns out to be a reckless and impulsive girl. The trainman who delivers her likens her to a bag of screaming monkeys. Kate’s father confirms this truth in a note which Kate hands to her uncle shortly after her arrival. The father writes that his daughter is an “impossible, incredible, disobedient, headstrong little imp.” He continues, “You always had a good hand with wild young things, your people always called you the Good Master, so I send Kate to you.” So the Good Master is also the one to whom people turn to in their need.

Who is the Good Master? Kate soon discovers that he is a road block to her wild ways or rather that he is one who is capable of taming screaming monkeys. Mother is taken in by the “motherless lamb” as she calls Kate. But instead of persuading with words, the Good Master simply lets the truth speak.

Jancsi felt gooseflesh creeping up his spine. He had seen this angelic expression before—his uncle was right, it was a danger signal. He looked at Father and caught his eye. Father was actually winking at him. Then he stood up, and said: “Jancsi and I are going to look after those ‘wild horses,’ Mother; you watch our new angel. See that she doesn’t fly away.”

Well, of course Kate soon flies off to mischief, and when the Good Master returns to the house, Kate is atop the kitchen rafters eating her way through the winter supply of sausages. The Good Master’s temper flares for she has trespassed hospitality in ways even his son would never dream of doing. But when he realizes there is no getting her down, for the stove she had climbed is now roaring hot, he is content to leave her there. In a firmness laced with good humor, he will let the truth that Kate has stranded herself by her own mischief serve as the punishment if not the cure of her impulsiveness. But why was it so egregious that Kate helped herself to the winter supply of sausage? Kate has entered an economy she does not understand. She knows nothing of the cooperative labor which goes into having a supply of winter sausage not just for a single person but for an entire household. But she will learn for as she becomes a part of the household and helps with sewing, gardening, and animal care, she quickly discovers the joy of giving rather than taking, and in that, we can say Kate has become more like the Good Master who took her in.

Who is the Good Master? He is a master horseman overseeing a large ranch on the Hungarian plains, and he is a father who is raising up his son to follow in his ways and so building a way of life that will live beyond himself.

Sometimes Jancsi rode along with Father. He loved the days when he was allowed to do so. The herdsmen were his friends; they told him stories, taught him to whittle, to play the tilinkó, rope a wild horse, and clip sheep. Best of all Jancsi loved the times when they were so far away from home that Father decided to stay overnight. They cooked supper on an open fire and ate it crouching around the embers, singing, swapping stories, or talking about the animals. Here he was one of the men and they never made him feel that he was just a young boy.

And Jancsi learns well from his father. Like his father, Jancsi is a good horseman and a generous teacher. And he is a teacher in the style of his father as we see when Jancsi teaches his headstrong cousin to ride. After their first lesson, Jancsi knows Kate had ridden long enough, and when she dismounts, she will feel like she has legs made of rubber. Therefore when Kate’s stubbornness rises and she insists that she now knows enough to ride Jancsi’s spirited horse, he is contentedly patient. Kate dismounts her own horse and of course cannot walk, and her vain hopes of riding Jancsi’s horse quickly evaporate, and she is humbled. In addition to teaching his son the practical skills of horsemanship and ranching, the Good Master hands on the equally important skill of making patience and truth one’s ally. As the Good Master behaved during Kate’s sausage episode, so his son behaves during Kate’s horse riding lesson.

Who is the Good Master? He is the patron of Pista who shepherds the Good Master’s sheep and who in this occupation has also developed his skills as an artisan. Pista greets his master with the words, “May the Lord give a good day to you all,” showing that while he owes much to the patronage of the Good Master, he also knows that the ultimate benefactor is the Good Lord. He speaks of this as he gives Kate one of his woodcarvings:

“What would a shepherd be doing with money, Mister Nagy? I have everything here. I am happy. Look,” he said stretching his arms wide, turning to the open doorway. “Look. The sky gives me sunshine and rain. The ground gives me food. The spring gives me water. The sheep give me shelter and clothes. The beautiful flowers, the animals, the birds, show me what to carve with my knife. Can money and schools give me better things?” He turned to Kate. “I don’t sell these things for money, little lady. I give them to my friends.”

The Good Master owns the sheep and employs Pista, yet, the shepherd, in his simple living on the land enriched by his artwork, friends, and the blessings of God, lives a life that may even surpass that of the Good Master, a man of many cares. For Pista, such a life is not a life to be traded for the riches of the city.

Like his shepherd, The Good Master is a man committed to his way of life and one who prudently weighs it against the allurements of the city. His brother, Kate’s father, does not see the sense of continuing to live a farm life. He says to his brother, “So still you make your own furniture. I don’t see how you have the patience for it when you can buy furniture so cheaply now.” The Good Master’s response is,“Glued and nailed factory rubbish.” And he continues, “Besides I have nothing else to do now. Shall I twiddle my thumbs and look at the snow?” In this simple exchange, the truth that work is made for man rather than man being made for work cannot be overlooked. His brother concedes the point and confesses, “I haven’t had an honest tool in my hands since I left for the city.” Together with the shepherds they throw themselves into crafting chairs that will “last for a lifetime” and the building of which brings them much satisfaction.

The Good Master is the man who with his wife creates a home where the goodness they put into their labors flow out into the wider world embracing and enriching those it encounters. And the Good Master is a man who at the end of the day looks toward the moonlit sky and whispers “Thank You for all Your blessings.” Writing between the two wars and feeling the pressure both of the wars and of the accelerating modernization of city life, Kate Seredy’s books often touch on the fragility of the world built on family-based, self-sustaining farms and ranches, but perhaps it is this tension which compelled her to detail for us the attitudes, generosity, skill, and good people required to build such a life. Her works are a salutary read for anyone still recalling, mourning, lauding, or seeking to reestablish this enchanting and longed for ideal.


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