In Garrison Keillor's short piece "How the Crab Apple Grew," what is the significance of the crab apple tree?
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This short piece draws from Garrison Keillor's monologues "Tales from Lake Wobegon," which he recites weekly on his radio show. Like the others, it is a reflection and remembrance on small-town life; fictional, but tailored to speak from the heart instead of from the fact. This particular tale is about an assignment given to Becky Diener, to describe her backyard as if she had never seen it before. The most striking thing in the backyard is a crab apple tree, which had just bloomed. After a few false starts, Becky begins to write her essay, relating the backyard and the tree itself to the romance of her parents, Harold and Marlys. Although the tree does not feature in the main part of the story, it becomes both a symbol and a reminder of both the past and the future:
He cut a root from another crab apple and planted the root in the ground. "Look, kids," he said. He sharpened the branch with his hatchet and split the root open and stuck the branch in and wrapped a cloth around it and said, "Now, there, that will be a tree."
The graft held, it grew, and one year it was interesting and the next it was impressive and then wonderful and finally it was magnificent.
(Keillor, "How the Crab Apple Grew," faculty.chemeketa.edu)
The growth of the crab apple tree from a graft is symbolic of the marriage of Becky's parents; the story relates how they dated but broke up, and how painful it was for Harold, who was not an overly-emotional man. All signs pointed to Marlys marrying another man, but Harold persisted in a sort-of passive-aggressive way, and the unlikely romance (graft) took root. The blooming of the tree symbolizes the family the grew from that seemingly-unimportant graft; Becky herself is the bloom, the continuation of the families that came before her, and as the tree blooms and grows more impressive each year, so to will Becky's family grow greater every generation.
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