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6.10.2011

Sootface (1994)

Retold by Robert D. San Souci

Illustrated by Daniel San Souci

Watercolor

Doubleday Book for Young Readers

The subtitle for this book is "An Ojibwa Cinderella Story," which immediately gives us some narrative mile markers, even if it doesn't quite hit all of them.

Curiously though, San Souci tells us that this story is not just an Obijwa tale, but it also found in other Algonquian tribes and the Canadian Micmac, all the way down to the southwest. However, San Souci's detailed design of the village and the clothing of the characters are all based on that of the Ojibwa, so this tale is indeed grounded in a particular place and time.

There are no fancy dress balls, no portentous strokes of midnight, not even a lost shoe. There are however, two nasty, mean older sisters and a younger sister whom they mock and make do most of the work. In addition, they, "beat her and smeared her face with ashes." Thus the name, Sootface.

Legend is, across the waters there lives a mighty warrior who happens to be invisible. It is this mysterious warrior for whom all the young women of the village vie. One by one, they make their way across the lake - including Sootface's two older sisters - and there to find the warrior, who is represented only by a pair of white moccasins and a shadow.

"Can you see my brother?" asks the sister of the warrior.

"Oh yes," lie the women of the village.

"Of what is his bow made?"

"Birch."

"And with what is it strung?"

"Rawhide."

"You do not see my brother."

This goes on, one disappointed woman at a time, until at last it is Sootface's turn. There is no fairy godmother to magically make her beautiful. Instead, she takes two strips of birch bark and sews them together to make a skirt. Then she weaves herself a necklace of wildflowers and soaks her old, stiff moccasins in a spring until they grow softer. Finally, she puts wild flowers in her hair and she is ready.

"You are so ugly and foolish looking! You will shame us before the hunter and his sister!"

But Sootface is determined. After she makes the journey, and is approached by the hunter, his sister asks, "Can you see him?"

"Yes, he is carrying a beautiful bow."

"Of what is his bow made?"

"A rainbow!"

"And how is it strung?"

"With white fire, like Milky Way, the Path of Souls."

From that moment, she is no longer 'Sootface,' but 'Dawn-Light,' and she lives happily ever after, or - as the story says - "claim the wife's place by the door flap!"

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