This fine and feisty book is narrated by Red, a 216 year old northern red oak, the eponymous Wishtree. Tradition dictates that on the first of May people come to hang their wishes on Red’s branches. He is a very unusual tree as he has the power of speech but he converses only with his friends in the natural world and with the occasional individual who has the heart and mind to listen. He is at the heart of the community, knowing its secrets and watching its dealings, both supportive and unkind.
This is no idealised world but one in which racism and prejudice can rear their ugly heads and patience and courage are needed to surmount antagonism. Samar’s family are Muslim and when they move into the neighbourhood ‘Leave’ is pointedly carved into Red’s trunk. Maeve adopts a baby left in one of Red’s hollows and is at first castigated for it as the child is Italian and she is a single Irish mother. However, just as the wounds inflicted on Red’s trunk heal, so the outrage felt against those who are different eventually cools.
Red supports much more than wishes: many different kinds of birds and animals live in his protection. These are humorously anthropomorphised by Applegate, thus simultaneously educating and amusing readers with their mix of human qualities and animal mannerisms. The most winning of these is Bongo the crow, Red’s special friend who affects a cool, sardonic style to counterbalance his unswerving devotion.
The climax of the book is the threat from Francesca to fell Red. Her drains are being invaded by his roots and her garden is consequently annually flooded. In a rousing and moving finale Applegate mobilises Red’s animal inhabitants and an impressive number of the community to protest against the felling. When Francesca finds a family connection with the tree-Maeve was the one who took her in as a baby – Red’s life is saved and his new status as Heritage Tree ensures that he will be protected forever.
Applegate steers an impressive and unerring course between strong emotion and sentimentality, rendering Wishtree an endearing and thought-provoking story for all who will listen and learn.