Jackie: Phyllis, the zucchini seeds you gave me have grown into a plant that knocked on our back door this morning. I gave it coffee and it retreated to the yard, heading toward the alley.
When I was a kid one of my favorite stories was the tall tale of Paul Bunyan. I laughed at the exaggeration, the total wackiness of an ox so large his footprints made the Great Lakes. As an adult, I realized that Paul Bunyan was actually a clear-cutter and that took some of the luster off the stories. But I still love tall tales. What fun to come up with a rollicking tale of exaggeration! We found some old favorites—and some new favorites.
Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, (illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, (Dutton, 1994) is a winning combination of understatement and exaggeration: “…when Angelica Longrider took her first gulp of air on this earth, there was nothing about the baby to suggest that she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee. The newborn was scarcely taller than her mother and couldn’t climb a tree without help…she was a full two years old before she built her first log cabin.” Of course it’s the Swamp Angel’s battle with the huge bear Thundering Tarnation that is at the heart of the story. The bear dispatches four woodsmen before Swamp Angel sets out. But really, who cares who wins? It’s the outsized oddity that’s fun: Swamp Angel lassos the bear with a tornado; they create the Great Smoky Mountains from the dust of their fighting; their snoring creates a rockslide. The unfortunate Tarnation’s pelt became the Shortgrass Prairie.
This story calls us all to look around and imagine what wonderful larger-than-life character created our rivers and hills, caves and prairies.
Phyllis: I love this book, with its outsize story and outsize art. And I love that this is a woman who can lift a whole wagon train out of Dejection Swamp (which is how she got her name Swamp Angel). When the men signing up to hunt Thundering Tarnation tell her to go home and quilt or bake a pie, Swamp Angel responds that quilting is men’s work and that she aims to bake a pie—“A bear pie.” When Thundering Tarnation meets his end under a tree that Swamp Angel snores down while they are fighting in their sleep, she “plucked off her hat, bowed her head, and offered up these words of praise: ‘Confound it, varmint, if you warn’t the most wonderous heap of trouble I ever come to grips with!’” Not only does she bake bear pie, she also makes “bear steaks and bear cakes, bear muffins and bear stuffin,’ bear roast and bear toast,” enough for a feast and to restock the all the root cellars in Tennessee just in time for winter.
Jackie: All stories create a shared community between writer, or teller, and readers, but it seems to me that tall tales have the added advantage that we are sharing a joke. We all know that a bear and a fightin’ woman did not create the Great Smoky Mountains. We are all in on the joke. We get it. And that is fun in a world where there is so much we don’t get.
I have always loved the title of Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow Deep-Water Man. And the book has a musicality to it that makes me want to read it aloud. Burt is a retired deep-water man with two boats—one he fills with geraniums and sweet peas (McCoskey calls them “Indian peas,” I can’t find verification of the sweet peas, but they are climbers and the flowers look like sweet peas.) And the other is Tidely-Idley with a “make-and-break engine.” Burt says, “She’s got a few tender places in her planking, but you can’t see daylight through her nowhere.”
One day Burt takes out the Tidely-Idely and has an unexpected adventure. He’s fishing for cod and hooks a whale. “’Ahoy there, whale!’ bellowed Burt. ‘Hold your horses! Keep our shirt on! Head into the wind and slack off the main sheet!’ But the whale couldn’t hear because his hearing gear was so far upwind from his steering gear.” This is just the beginning. Burt has to hitch a ride inside the whale, paint his way out, then escape a school of whales demanding band-aids on their tales. It might have been too much for a younger fisherman, but not Burt Dow. He placates the whales and makes it home just as the cock begins to crow.
This book is so much fun. It’s a Mainer’s retelling of Jonah with a little “whale insider” art thrown in for fun. And I have to mention the language. McCloskey wrote a story that should be read out loud on someone’s porch. Burt’s rooster crows “Cockety-doodly;” his water pump goes “slish-cashlosh, slish-caslosh;” Burt always keeps a “firm hand on the tiller;” and the make-and-break engine always goes “clackety-bangety.”
An entry on Wikipedia notes that there was a Bert Dow, deep-water man, on Deer Isle where McCloskey lived. He is buried in a Deer Isle cemetery. His tombstone says: “Bert Dow, Deep Water Man, 1882–1964.” Robert McCloskey helped pay for the stone.
Phyllis: Burt isn’t physically larger than life in the way that Swamp Angel or Paul Bunyan are, but his problems are whale sized, and as with other tall tale figures, no problem is so big Burt can’t solve it. Along with language that delights and tickles, McCloskey makes good use of page turns. Once Burt accidentally hooks the whale’s tail and his giggling gull waits to see “what would happen next,” so does the reader, since starting on the next double-page spread and on many of the following spreads, McCloskey breaks off his sentences in the middle. “But the very next moment it came to Burt’s attention that he’d pulled up a”….
We turn the page to finish the sentence and read WHALE OF A TAIL. Spread after spread, McCloskey builds suspense, and spread after spread, while the situation seems to worsen, Burt is never dismayed, even when he realizes that when he asked the whale to swallow him to save him and his boat AND gull from “a gale of a wind,” he doesn’t know for sure that the whale heard the part where they were supposed to be “temporary guests, so to speak.” Once they are burped free and also satisfy all the other whales who want bandaids on their tales, pump out the Tidely-Idley, slish-caslosh, slish-caslosh, crank up the make and break, clackety-BANG! Clackety-BANG! Burt and his gull sail home in time, we assume, for breakfast. A rollicking story full of rollicking language and fun.
Jackie: We are also considering an intergenerational effort. Christopher Myers illustrated some of the “Lies and Other Tall Tales” collected by Zora Neale Hurston (HarperCollins, 2005). These are not long stories but are wonderfully rich in play with language and exaggeration, so wonderful that we want to include it even though it’s a fairly recent book. “I seen a man so short he had to get up on a box to look over a grain of sand.” That’s one-upped by “That man had a wife and she was so small that she got in a storm and never got wet because she stepped between the drops.”
This lively book might work best for older children. Younger children could be disturbed by some of the exaggerations (a man so mean he swallows another man whole). For those who are ready, this book will bring some smiles—and some understanding of the verbal games of the African American culture. Christopher Myers notes that these tales, “were used in some version of playing the dozens…an African American cultural practice, which if you haven’t heard about it, you better ask your mama! It includes mama jokes and humorous dissing, which if you don’t know what dissing is, you don’t have the sense God gave a flea.”
Phyllis: As Christopher Myers writes, “Liars, back in the day, could tell a lie so good, you didn’t even want to know the truth.” And these lies are so delightful and fancy-tickling that I agree with him. One of my favorites is the folks who built a church on “the poorest land I ever seed” and had to use ten sacks of fertilizer before they could “raise a hymn on it.” An author’s note tells how the illustrations are made from found bits of fabric and paper that Myers has transformed into “’quilts’ as witty and beautiful as the phrases Zora Neal Hurston found.”
Jackie: Phyllis, I can’t quit without mentioning your tall tale—Paula Bunyan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009). Paula has way more sense than God gave a flea. She actually replants trees where other loggers have cut them down. And she’s fast. “Paula could run so fast that once when she forgot to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yesterday to finish them.” It must have been fun to re-tell the Paul Bunyan story as a greening of the earth.
Phyllis: It was fun. The story started as something my kids and I told one fall while riding on a haywagon to pick Haralson apples, our favorites. And why not another tall tale woman? What’s against it?
None of us may be as large or fight as fiercely as Swamp Angel, we may not know a man so hungry he swallowed himself, we may never have to figure out how to get on the outside of a whale. But these tales remind us that even in our ordinary lives we can keep a firm hand on the tiller, come to grips with whatever “wondrous heap of trouble” comes our way, and still make it home in time for breakfast.
And speaking of breakfast, I don’t mean to brag, but my zucchini pounded on the door this morning and demanded a latte and a cinnamon croissant. With butter.