Max finished The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett while savoring fruit salad and pumpkin bread for breakfast this cold and wet morning. I love when he reads aloud to all of us- stories sifting through baby babbles and the sounds of life and love.
The book tells the story of a World War 1 deserter, three children, and their relationship. Three didactic tales are related at various points in the book.
In the second tale, the soldier tells of a land in which the expected annual monsoon did not come, so the people and animals were suffering from drought. The people angrily told the sky to give them the rain they deserved but the sky refused because they “did not say please”. So then the people sent various animals up to the top of the highest mountain to petition the sky for rain.
First the elephant climbed the peak and told the sky that if it did not rain, he would use his trunk to squeeze rain from the clouds. The sky replied:
“You are magnificent so the people worship you, but, like them, you are arrogant. Like them you use your power the wrong way. You can try to squeeze rain out of me but I don’t think you’ll succeed.”
Sure enough, the elephant tried and failed. Next the people sent the tiger to procure rain. The tiger demanded to know where the rain was hiding. The sky replied:
“It’s true you are beautiful, tiger… it’s a pity you are sneaky and a coward. You only use your teeth and claws on those weaker than yourself- against creatures that cannot fight back. And you always attack from behind.”
So the sky was not persuaded by the tiger. Then the people sent the glittering snake, who called the sky its friend and spoke in a soft, slithery voice. The sky laughed and replied:
“Snake, you’re a teller of untruths. You are friends with none but yourself. You have only your own interests and your cold heart. Go away, little serpent, and hide under a rock.”
So the snake went away and the people sent a dog, who galloped up the mountain and asked the sky why it did not love the people. The dog said:
“I love them, oh I love them. If I was the sky and the people wanted rain, I would rain! I would do it, just to please them! What’s the matter with you sky? You’re not loyal. You’re not well trained. You’re rather disobedient. You’ve probably got fleas!”
The sky sighed:
“Dog, you know that I adore you for you can be so adorable. But you are not without fault. You are devoted to the point of stupidity. You haven’t a mind of your own. Go back to your masters. Tell them I will not discuss the monsoon anymore. I have seen and heard nothing that proves you deserve what you demand.”
So the dog frisked away. A donkey, who had been quietly observing, started to try to climb the mountain, but the people jeered and mocked the donkey, calling it foolish and clumsy. So the donkey climbed back down and waited for the cover of night before resuming its climb up the mountain. The sky was annoyed at the silent donkey.
“You have come here, donkey, and risked my wrath, to plead for rain. Yet the monsoon will only benefit those who treat you badly. Donkeys are despised as witless and pigheaded. You are forced to carry impossible loads, whipped till your hides are crossed with scars. You are fed the harshest food, and very little of it…. So often you are treated not as a feeling fellow creature but as an insensible lump of clay. Wouldn’t it be better, donkey, if this unkind world simply shrivelled up and blew away?”
The conversation between the sky and donkey is humbling and beautiful. I won’t relay all of it. But the donkey replies:
“It’s true that I have known suffering, sky. That’s why I cannot bear the sight of it…. I will not take pleasure in the suffering of others. I would rather endure suffering myself, than see it inflicted on the world in my name.”
The sky is softened by the donkey’s heart.
“I have looked down on the world and despaired. I have seen the deplorable things that people do to other another. I did not bring the monsoon because I thought there were none who deserved a beautiful home. All hearts were barren, I believed, and deserved only a barren world. But your heart isn’t like that donkey. You endure much that is unforgivable, yet you forgive. And if, a simple donkey, can have mercy, then surely I, the boundless sky, can be merciful also.”
Then the sky explains that there will always be injustice in the world and the weak will always be killed or mistreated by the strong. But as long as the weak exist, the sky promises to keep the world beautiful for their sake. He will never refuse the monsoon again:
“Rain will pour like tears from me and make the Earth a garden. In honor of you, my donkey, storm clouds will be forever gray- the color of your coat…Hurry away, little donkey. I think it will soon rain. When it falls, know that it is falling not for those who demand everything, but for those who who ask so little.”
So true. So beautiful and true. Max said that, in this tale, the donkey reminded him of Jesus and the sky reminded him of God. I encouraged him to elaborate on this in his journal. So, he did.
He explained that the Jesus had all the virtues ascribed to the donkey in the first tale of the book. “Power is not the best way to ask God for something- humility is the way to ask,” Max wrote. The sky, like God, shows mercy because he is surprised that the donkey wants rain for those who treat him so badly. Max observed that mean behavior does not lead to mercy. I explained the role of the plea bargain in our legal system as a form of “mercy” for those who accept their guilt. I’m not sure he followed completely, but he seemed interested enough to ask a few more questions.
You can find a good synopsis of this book here. You can also use the teacher’s notes packet prepared by Penguin Books.