Monday, August 31, 2015

Whether or Not It Happened Doesn't Mean It Isn't True

Mary and Conrad Buff's The Apple and the Arrow: The Legend of William Tell

To say that American children are unfamiliar with Swiss history is an understatement of considerable magnitude, and to say that American children are unfamiliar with American history only slightly less so. 

Americans, with a few notable exceptions, have little use for history. Yes, it is taught in school, and 8th graders in many states must take a mandatory test on the U.S. Constitution in order to maticulate to high school. But, after only a few moments of conversation with a high-school freshman it becomes clear that retention is an issue.

Maybe it's because we are such a young country in comparison to the rest of the world.  Or maybe that fact that most of us, as descendants of immigrants, were raised on the mantra of a bigger, better future, a future that would have been impossible to imagine in our countries of origin, with their rigid class structures or traditional educational institutions.  Whatever the reasons, we Americans possess a very limited knowledge of who we were and where we came from. We share very few truly unifying stories, stories that bind us as a people and celebrate our shared heritage.  

The Swiss, on the other hand, have a number of unifying stories, the most famous of all, and perhaps the only one even remotely familiar to the non-Swiss, is the legend of William Tell.

The bare bones version of the story is that in the 13th century, William Tell was the greatest bowman in the canton (state) of Uri.  At the time Germany, Austria and Switzerland (the land that would become those countries) were ruled by Austria. Then, an Austrian king named Albrecht came to the throne, and he was harsh and cruel. He sent bailiffs into the country, and one that was particularly vile was the bailiff Gessler, who built a great stone castle at Altdorf, with a prison where he threw anyone he even suspected of championing independence.

Men from the three Swiss cantons came together and determined to revolt on New Year's Day.  They did not want bloodshed, but they were determined to rid their land of the bailiffs.  William Tell was one of those men.

But before the revolt happened, William ran afoul of Gessler, when he refused to bow down to a hat, placed on top of a pole in a town square, that represented Austria. Gessler, furious, said both Tell and his son were to be killed, but, intrigued by Tell's reputation with a crossbow, told him that both he and his son would be spared if he shot an arrow through an apple placed atop of his son's head.  Tell did, but then told Gessler that had his son died, he would have used his other arrow to kill him.

Enraged, Gessler had Tell arrested, but Tell escaped, in several versions he kills Gessler, and then returns to his family to take part in the successful uprising on New Year's Day.

This story, told from the point of view of Walter, Tell's oldest son, is the basis for today's review.

Book #32: The Apple and the Arrow (1951) by Mary and Conrad Buff. Illustrated by Conrad Buff. 80 pages.

Walter Tell loves and admires his father, William Tell, and longs of the day when he too will be a great bowman. The Tells are a close and loving family, true to their faith and brave in the face of adversity. Walter has a little brother, Rudi, who feels about Walter the way Walter feels about their father.

Walter's mother, Hedwig, is the one who tells her oldest son about his father's involvement in the quest for independence from Austria. When William and his son draw the ire of Gessler, and the most famous arrow in history splits the apple cleanly in two, the ensuing events unfold as experienced by Walter.  Tell's eventual reunion with his family and the successful expulsion of the detested bailiffs from Uri end the book on a happy note, and a wonderful concluding paragraph by Mary Buff.

Today it does not matter whether the story of William Tell really happened or is a legend handed down. For the story of a brave man's revolt against tyranny is always true-as true for us now as it was in the far-off days of The Apple and the Arrow.

This is a excellent read-aloud for the intermediate grades.  The writing is straightforward, and at times poetic, and the illustrations are beautifully done. Given the subject matter, I would not begin to read this book to students until after giving a brief summary of the places and events of the book. Show them where Switzerland is located on a globe or map. Explain what the Alps are, and a few words on herding wouldn't be a bad idea either. Then go ahead and enjoy the book.

The Apple and the Arrow at

Mary and Conrad Buff collaborated on fourteen children's books over a thirty-year period.  Conrad (1886 - 1975) illustrated all of the stories, and Mary (1890 - 1970) was the primary writer. The idea for The Apple and the Arrow came about when Swiss-born Conrad, after 30 years in America, decided to return home for a visit with his aging parents to his boyhood home, the village of Speicher, near Lake Constance.

The Buffs were several times nominated for both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, the first for Dash and Dart (1943), and the others The Big Tree (1946), The Apple and the Arrow (1952), and for Magic Maize (1954).

Mary and Conrad Buff Papers at The University of Minnesota Libraries

Conrad Buff website.


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