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Henry Holt and Company
This was a really wonderful read, and hard to come by. I'd somehow missed this one all these years.
It has a much different feel than Anansi the Spider, which is readily apparent just from the cover. Anansi was bright red! Anansi was grinning right us! In The Magic Tree, the colors are muted. The expression on Mavungu's profile is hard to read. This is a downbeat tale.
It begins with brothers - Mavungu and Luemba - one inexplicably favored, and one not. Mavungu leaves his home in shame. McDermott is so sparse with his prose: "One night he left his home," is all we're given, but the dark, highly stylized images show an epic journey through the nighttime rivers of the Congo.
Finally, Mavungu finds a thick tree growing from the water which blocks his path, and from the unfolding of the leaves comes a beautiful woman. These images remind me of the unfolding of a paper snowflake, colorful and mysterious, I could imagine the movement of it. The woman loves Mavungu, and transforms him into a lover worthy of her, with the only caveat that he must never tell of the Magic Tree.
It is hard to keep such a delicious secret, and the maddening dilemma along with his return to his home forms the remainder of the story. I have to say, I was surprised at the ending, and the finality of it.
He forgot those who loved him. And he gave his secret to those who did not love him at all.
Henry Holy and Company
Gerald McDermott died on December 26th of last year, just a couple of weeks ago, as I write this. He was 71 years old.
I think back on it, and I think that his books - and especially this particular book, Anansi the Spider - were the most influential in getting me interested in storytelling through picture books.
I always loved picture books since I had been a kid, but it was when I was put in charge of the children's section at the Penn Bookstore that I really came into contact with picture books in a meaningful way, and Anansi the Spider was a book I found right away.
|Three of the six: Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion|
I am drawn to the Trickster tales more than any other, and Anansi is the Trickster of all Trickster. I read this book often to groups of children who would come in for storytime. The story is about Anansi and his six sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion, and how they each use their unique skills to rescue their father from a series of unfortunate events. It's a very fun read for children, and uses elements of puzzle-solving in addition to storytelling.
|"He fell into trouble."|
Re-reading through it tonight, however, I realize that there isn't very much tricking going on in this particular Anansi story, which makes it stand in contrast to many of the Anansi picturebooks which have followed. Anansi seems strangely passive. Events happen to him, and the story ends with him being unable to make up his mind. I think McDermott became a much more engaging writer as his career unfolded, but there's still a wonderful elegance in this story - its both simple and complex - and the colorful, geometric illustrations are such a standout it feels as though you've read something elemental.
I like that word, 'continuity,' in this context. It shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that Gerald McDermott was good friends with Joseph Campbell, and was the first fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The subject of storytelling is one he took quite seriously, and permeates his entire career, as we shall see.
|The God of All Things|
Illustrated by Louise August
Linocuts painted in full-color oils on rice paper
Henry Holt and Company
"A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish tradition," reads the subtitle of this one. Having already featured Raisel's Riddle and interviewed its author, I figured I was an old hat when it came to Jewish Cinderellas. Well, shows what I know. In fact, I would say that this was more of a Jewish inversion of the Cinderella story.
Some aspects run parallel. The Fairy Godmother is here the bearded Prophet Elijah. The fancy dress ball is a wedding feast in Cracow, and the prince is the handsome son of Rabbi Yitskhok ben Levi of Lublin, with whom our Cinderella is living at the time. Her name is Mireleh, by the way. And how did she come to be destitute, living a life in the margins of society, a poor beggar girl given shelter in the attic of a kindly Rabbi? Well, it is a family tragedy. I can hardly bear to write it down.
You see, not long ago, Mireleh had been the youngest, carefree daughter of a rabbi herself. Even though she had no special gifts, her father held a special place in his heart for her. But then, one dark day, Rabbi Reyzeleh was besieged by a quandary for which not even the Talmud held an answer.
"I know that I love my children," he said to himself, little realizing the horror his line of thinking would soon inflict. "But how much do they love me?"
He decides, in a moment of insight, to actually ask his daughters! A cunning plan, which seems at first to work perfectly:
"As much as diamonds!" answers the first daughter.
"As much as gold and silver!" is the second reply.
But finally, young Mireleh goes and screws things up royally with this enigmatic response:
"Father, I love you the way meat loves salt."
"What?!!" he shrieks. "You love me no more than salt??"
And for this, Mireleh is banished from the house, in shame and in disgrace.
Fortunately, Old Prophet Elijah is on hand with a Magic Stick that will grant her wishes, as a consolation.
So, that's the beginning of the story. Now, into the Cinderella-ness of it. Armed with the magic stick, Mireleh produces for herself, "a dress of satin, embroidered with pearls! A garland of roses for my hair and a pair of satin slippers for my feet!" Then: ZAP! She appears at the wedding feast, and everyone is shocked to see this beautiful stranger, especially the bride and groom who are just trying to get married.
Well, it pays off. The rabbi's son is stricken with love, little realizing that Mireleh is the very same beggar girl he was looking down on just two pages ago! That's what I meant by an inversion. In this story, the handsome prince and the wicked stepsisters are one in the same.
And here's another inversion: The rabbi's son then goes out and decides it would be a good idea to cover the front steps of the house with tar. Why? So that he can hide and wait for the beautiful stranger to leave. When one of her shoes gets stuck in the tar, she runs off without it. All a part of his plan, you see.
Now he goes around, trying the shoes of the lovely Jewish maidens in the village, promising his parents that he will marry whomever the errant shoe belongs to. But when he realizes it belongs to the beggar girl under his own roof, what is he to do? Follow his heart?
|"You came to us a poor beggar, covered with mud and dust. We let you stay here for tsedokeh!"|
That night, the disembodied spirit of Prophet Elijah appears to the rabbi: "Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"
Yikes! I don't recall Cinderella's godmother making such a threat!
|"Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"|
So, it should come as no surprise then that indeed, he does marry Mireleh. A large wedding feast is planned! But, before it starts, Mireleh runs to the cooks and instructs, "Don't put any salt in the food!"
Later, during the ceremony, who is that old man, retching at disgust at the food which is offered? "This food tastes terrible! It has no salt!"
"But, Father, don't you remember? I told you I love you the way meat loves salt and you drove me from your house!"
"You spoke only words of truth to me!" he exclaims, and they are united.
So the next time someone asks you how much you love them, don't use any of your cute metaphors, oy vey!