Leo Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories Will Devastate Your Children and Make You Want to Die

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also a gentleman farmer, operated an ancestral estate called Yasnaya Polyana that included a small school for the children of the peasants who labored there. Tolstoy was known to drop by from time to time and read stories that he wrote himself, which in his typical modesty, he predicted would be read by “thousands, even millions.”

In 1988, the children’s novelist and Russia expert James Riordan translated several of these for a collection called The Lion and the Puppy: And Other Stories for Children, published first by Henry Holt and Company. The cover has a nice picture of a lion and a puppy; the illustrations by Claus Sievert are lovely throughout. My children fell in love with that picture, and they wanted me to read them the book. My first thought was: Children’s stories by the author of the inspirational The Death of Ivan Ilyich? But pestilence has closed the schools and home reading was important. Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them.

The first story turned out to be the only one we endured together. It’s about a hungry lion in the zoo, whose keepers comb the streets for stray cats and dogs to feed him. Tolstoy recounts the lion coming for a puppy that got lost by its master: “Poor little dog. Tail between its legs, it squeezed itself into the corner of the cage as the lion came closer and closer.”

The lion decides not to eat this puppy, and they become friends. Until we get to page two, when the puppy, now a year old, suddenly sickens and dies. So what does the lion do? “[H]e put his paws about his cold little friend and lay grieving for a full five days. And on the sixth day the lion died.” The end.

“Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”

“Daddy Daddy,” my daughter asked, still wondering about the now-dead lion’s lifestyle, “why did the people feed the lion puppies?”

So I took the book away and hid it from the children. Later I read it through. If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath. The rest of the stories are just as dark as the first one. So we have:

“Escape of a Dancing Bear.” The bear runs away after the master gets drunk. He’s too strong to capture directly, so they play his dancing music and he dances again. This allows the keepers to grab onto his chain. “The bear saw the ruse too late, roared helplessly, and tried to escape. But the master clung on tightly.” The end.

“Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree.” A property owner orders a tree cut down, then reconsiders. “It seemed a shame to kill such a beautiful thing.” But the woodcutter has already started, so he takes up an axe and lends a hand. “And then an unnerving sound came from inside the very soul of that tree. It was as if someone was screaming in unbearable pain, a tearing, wrenching, long, drawn-out scream.” The woodcutter says, “Whew, she don’t die easy, Sir!” Then the tree falls. The end.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books