Only once before my move to Newton had I seen any portion of the Midwest. When my great-grandfather died in his late 90s, my parents braved air travel with a two-year-old to attend the first memorial service in Colorado. In an even more daring move, they packed me and my grandmother of 70-some-odd years into the back of a rental car to drive the mind-numbingly straight roads of Kansas for a second memorial service and then into St. Louis to stay with a college friend of my father’s. Due to either my incredible youth or my psyche blocking all recollection of pre-GPS mapping debacles in an attempt to prevent permanent psychological damage, I have no memory of the road trip.
Twenty years later, I stared at the impossibly tall gabled-roof barns modeled after the Dutch style that reached into the clouds and gambrel roofs perched atop prairie barns like short men on stilts as I rolled down Interstate 73. They dominated the horizon. More massive, more fearsome and more permanent than anything of nature’s creation in sight. They had stood there like that for generations, their red paint laughing at the gales battering tractor trailers driving by and their giant frames guarding each year’s crop that swept the vista. It was a postcard image of America, a testament to a great expanse that we’ve shaken to its core and tamed.
A week after my move from the Shenandoah Valley, The Atlantic recirculated an article on its social media accounts that originally hit shelves in January 2016, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories” by Colleen Gillard. The American storytelling flaw boils down to Puritan morality, the Protestant work ethic and imposing landscapes. We’re too focused on saving the next generation’s souls, living out the promise of manifest destiny and building anything that might put us on the scale of vast expanses to fool with gnomish hobgoblins, delicate faeries or dusty spell books. The British never lost sight of the magic and fantasy rife in Gaelic folklore where “a tear in this (real-world) fabric is all it takes for a story to begin,” writes Gillard.
… Until they shipped off to the New World and had the elements, disease and natives rip through them with insurmountable droughts, insidious dysentery and inescapable arrows. Forget making pacts with the elves, only adhering to the strict rigors of an almighty, Old-Testament, fire-and-brimstone God could save them now. Their descendants created a national body of children’s literature from fact — they exaggerated real heroes like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and John Henry to transform them into legend.
While legendary scope and scale and a path toward salvation may set the standard for the national narrative, it only partially informs the tales traditionally told to children in the South.
A paragraph of Gillard’s article briefly touches on African American folklore, specifically those that became the Uncle Remus tales, that ran through the sugar plantations and molasses mills in the Caribbean up to the indigo and rice of the South Carolina low country and the Tobacco of the Virginia Tidewater. She immediately dismisses their significance as “devalued vernacular.” Gillard’s otherwise insightful piece founders at the Southern mind — Old traditions die hard.
Before I could read, I would climb into my father’s lap after dinner — I could see the illustrations that way — and he read aloud. My favorite were the Uncle Remus tales, trickster animals who wheedled, connived and outsmarted their way out of unfortunate circumstances. The collections have come under fire as racist because of the dialect that permeates the stories, but more recent editions of the oral tradition put to paper by Joel Chandler Harris, particularly the 2013 collection from the Beehive Press Foundation, remind us in their introductions that Harris’ tales accurately record a variety of African American speech patterns and preserve oral tradition born of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The late, great Julius Lester —an African-American scholar of literature, advocate for African folktales and civil rights activist — recognized their worth, modernized and published several collections in the 1990s. Lester’s were the stories my parents, who had read other versions of the tales growing up, shared with me.
In the landscape of Augusta County, where a child could fathom secrets that the hills held, the stories sprang to life. I could imagine Brer Rabbit hopping some, bobbing some and jumping some across the fog-covered fields of Augusta County to get to Mammy Bammy Big Money’s house tucked deep in a holler. I could watch Brer Buzzard sun himself atop a pine tree on a lazy afternoon. I could hear Brer Bullfrog sing his throaty anthem as he settled in the mud whenever I disturbed the mud at the bottom of a pond or a creek. A tear in the fabric of reality was, indeed, all it took.
The critters and creatures from English favorites like Beatrix Potter stories and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia appeared equally as realistic to my childlike imagination. Had I grown up in the Midwest, I wonder if I could have imagined those characters as easily or re-enacted favorite scenes during long hours of play without the help of the towering circle of boxwoods or a woodpile moldering against a honeysuckle and ivy-covered wire fence. Would I have more easily imagined coonskin hat-capped, buckskin-clad and moccasin-shod men wrestling alligators and plowing 500 acres in a single afternoon? Would the thunderstorms against which I shut my eyes but still see the lightening through my eyelids and drawn drapes have caused me to think more thoroughly about mortality and salvation?
Had a Midwestern landscape influenced the imagination of my early years, would fairytales still endear themselves to me as an adult? Would I write differently? Would I have written at all?
Ironically, the Midwest has lured me out of the South to make a career as a writer. I may not be writing faerie stories or dreaming up loquacious, mischievous critters — yet — but there’s a stark beauty to the arresting, mutable sky that bends blue bands over crops and shakes the foundations of houses with thunder. And where there’s a fascination with beauty, a tear in the fabric of reality lurks just around the corner.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at 641-792-3121 ext. 6547 or firstname.lastname@example.org