The Good Master by Kate Seredy

Shelves overflow with Harry Potter, the Twilight series, The Hunger Games.  Repugnant youths pass for heroes; the more bull-headed, the better.  Parents? Pooh.  The modern hero is flirting with pusillanimity should he consult with the pater.  That is, if father even graces the story.  Both mothers and fathers have felt the literary snub; yet fathers first.  In a world where father figures have by and large vacated the seat of authority in family life from every sort of popular literature or entertainment, one needs Kate Seredy’s The Good Master more than ever.

Kate SeredyCatapulting the tale into high gear is Kate’s arrival by train from Budapest.  Letters heralding her visit had prepared her cousin Jancsi and his father for a delicate child in need of country air and a long stay at their ranch.  They were quite unprepared, however, for the introduction which they received:  “Here, take this—this imp, this unspeakable little devil—take her and welcome … I’d rather travel with a bag of screaming monkeys than her, any time.”  The rail road guard skittered away, leaving the girl behind.  Confusion reigns until Kate produces a letter from her own father.  He writes to his brother, “She is beyond me.  I confess I have spoiled her since her blessed mother died.  You always had a good hand with wild young things, your people always called you the Good Master, so I send Kate to you.”  Simply put, Kate needs a thorough transformation, one she will find amidst waxed Easter eggs dipped in dye, milk cows, flower gardens, sheep herders, horse races, Hungarian folk tales, and the sundry adventures which ensue upon her arrival in the home of Uncle Márton, Jancsi and Mother.  In Kate, Jancsi’s father faces a test of his mettle; he must put all his talents to the service of this task.  Nor will he disappoint.  Father gracefully exhibits those uniquely masculine qualities: wise stewardship combined with gentle yet firm fatherly authority, which enable him utterly to transform Kate while rendering him truly to be, as he is called, “The Good Master.”

As a true craftsman gathers about him the necessary instruments to best perform his task , Father, the wise steward, sets his household in order the better to serve his family and contribute to their common good.  His stewardship harmonizes with Aristotle’s art of household management, in which the master is he “who has to order the things which nature supplies” (Politics, 1258a 24-25).   Nature supplies the animals, the grain, and the materials found on the ranch; but Father must know which to tame, which to kill; when to sew and when to reap; when to build and in what manner.  He must know how to delegate, so that talent may suit task.  Knowing the rewards and trials of nature, Father puts Kate to work alongside Jancsi.  This healthy hard work in fresh air amongst chickens, cows, horses and gardens has a role to play in Kate’s reformation, toughening her, as well as opening her eyes to God’s revelation of Himself in the wonders of nature.  Father’s duties done well enrich the lives of all those who depend upon him and work alongside him: Mother, Jancsi, Kate, even those in his employment. “Harvest time came, bringing long, burning, hot days and silvery, moonlit nights … Men cut the grain, girls followed them, tying it into neat bundles.  They sang happily all day long.  It was a good harvest for a ‘good master,’ as they called Father.”

The Good Master CoverConfronted with his brother’s child and her obvious lack of discipline or common courtesy, Father is decisive, firm at times, even fearful as he confidently exercises his God given authority.  Yet love guides disciplinary decisions, and gentles them.  His consistency gives both Jancsi and Kate security and order in their own lives.  Since Father seeks only to enrich the children’s lives and enable them more fully to live the good life, they respond quite naturally with trust and respect.

Take, for example, Kate’s unparalleled antic upon her initial arrival, and Father’s reaction.  Shortly after Mother receives Kate into her welcoming embrace and supervision, Kate vanishes.  After a fruitless search of the entire home, barn, sheds, grounds—he well included—Father, Mother, and Jancsi despair of discovering their city-bred relative, only to find her swinging her legs from the rafters. This “delicate” child had managed to scale the enormous “kemence” (the squat Hungarian stove) and now straddled a beam, consuming vast quantities of Father’s beloved sausages, where they were carefully hung for safe keeping.  From Father’s perspective, she could hardly commit a more grievous crime.

Grasping the broom, Father roared: “Come down!” Kate shook her head.  “COME DOWN!” Kate moved like lightning, out of the path of the swinging broom…. There was a cascade of assorted sausages, pepper, and corn.  Father got red and redder in the face.  Kate was scurrying like a monkey from one beam to the other, screaming like a tin whistle.  It went on and on. It was Father who gave in first.  He sank into his chair, wiping his forehead.  “Angel … motherless lamb,” he panted … And with utter contempt:  “Delicate!  Devouring yards of sausages!”

Kate had climbed the stove, the  “big white beehive” as she called it, while it was cool, but before she was discovered, Mother had lit the fire, and now it was too hot for her to descend.  Nor would Father permit anyone to assist her.

Kate watched from above as the family prepared and ate their supper.  At Father’s command, she was not attended to when she requested something to drink, nor when she stated her fatigue.  The family went about their nightly tasks and prepared for bed, putting out candles. And still the kemence was too hot.  Still Kate perched uncomfortably among the winter stores above their heads.  Sometime later, Jancsi woke to hear soft voices in the kitchen.

There was Father, holding Kate in his arms, stroking her hair.

Nobody ever found out just what had happened between Kate and Father that night, nobody ever spoke about it.

Somehow, that incident laid the first stone in Kate’s new interior castle.  She had met her match in her Uncle Márton.  She could not cajole him with her sweet face or her artful demands, not when her poor behavior merited punishment.  Once Father made his decision, she must abide by it. Nor is her trust weakened or her love lost; rather, Kate benefits from her initial penalty.  For as she and Father sit together, softly laughing and talking, their bond strengthens.  She must have met with pardon and love when she finally climbed down the cool oven.  Father must have been waiting.  Waiting to receive her with mercy and open arms, after she had served her sentence up there in the rafters.

Kate Seredy’s The Good Master provides a refreshing example of fatherhood and leadership.  It is a story which revels in childhood, family and the outdoors.   The authoress’ deep love of her own native Hungary imbues its pages, adding cultural and religious interest to an already lovely tale.  Whether read as a child, or as an adult, or better yet-several times as each; this story of Kate and her relatives not only fills a void created by much modern garbage posing as literature, but stands strong in its own right.

Elizabeth Anderson

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Elizabeth Anderson is a stay at home mother and independent writer. After graduating from Christendom College, she worked for several years for Population Research Institute. She resides in Michigan with her husband, Matthew, and their three small children.

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  • msmischief

    One of the beloved books of my childhood. Followed the Singing Tree, which situates it neatly in time: that takes place in World War I

    • Catriona M Mac Kirnan

      The Singing Tree is a sequel to the Good Master, not the other way around. Good Master is pre-WW I.

  • fides

    A very good write Mrs. Anderson. Inspiring others to read a good story—there is a name for that virtue.

  • Catriona M Mac Kirnan

    I loved this book, and still do, re-reading it every few years. I only found out as an adult that the story is mostly autobiographical. The Kate of the story is Kate Seredy herself. Certainly it is also a very Christian book, even a Catholic Christian book, though it is understated.

  • EireItalia

    Adding this to my kids’ literature list and my own — thanks, Elizabeth, for a wonderful article!

  • Perelandra

    I happily remember THE GOOD MASTER and THE SINGING TREE from my childhood. But avoid Seredy’s Newbery winner THE WHITE STAG which has disturbing fascistic undertones and isn’t much of a story, either.

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