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Showing posts with label Rafe Martin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rafe Martin. Show all posts


The Boy Who Lived With The Seals (1993)

Retold by Rafe Martin

Illustrated by David Shannon


Typeset in Meridien

G.P. Putnam's Sons

I thought I'd begin this month of Native American stories with a book by two of my favorite people, Rafe Martin and David Shannon. They previously had collaborated on The Rough-Faced Girl. In that book, I remember being very surprised at how soulful Shannon's artwork could be - as I generally associate him with goofier, more playful fare. This book finds him back in full form here, adding some real gravity to a fanciful tale. In particular, I marveled at the violence with which the men of the village wrestle the boy from the island of seals to bring him home to his parents.

This is a Chinook tale, and is a tale with some familarities. The Jungle Book sprung to mind. Boy runs away from home, boy is taken in by anthropormised animals, boy returns to society... However, I have to think that it was the more spiritual elements which made Rafe want to tell this story. "These People understand well the sacredness of all life," he writes in an afterword. "They know one cannot just take without giving some gift in return - and that out of this gift new gifts of renewed life will grow."

Once the boy returns to his people, he tells of his life with the seals. It's mostly swimming and fishing, as you might imagine, but also...

He said that they build fires at night under the sea and tell stories. Only the stories the seals tell, he said, are of the things that happened long ago when the world was new, and of the things that are yet to happen far in the future.

A strange, cosmic detail, indeed.

I couldn't help but be glad to see the boy escape and rejoin his underwater family, yet the tale was bittersweet, as we end with the parents who must now go on living without their son.


One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages (1995)

Retold by Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares

Illustrated by Junko Morimoto

It’s terribly dated to quote an episode of Seinfeld, but lest we forget the episode in which Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism ‘for the jokes.’ I find myself in a similar dilemma when presented with these wonderful picture books, the need to convert to Buddhism. For the stories.

Unlike the Biblical stories I've reviewed in the past, there is no pretense of these having been actual events. Thus, no need to leave my brain at the title page. Also, I do not need to be in the constant act of apology for an angry, jealous Supreme Being. Instead, I found myself doing just what Manuela Soares speaks of in his Editor's Note at the beginning:

"...these stories are meant to evoke questions, to elicit wonder and amusement, and encourage contemplation."

One Hand Clapping is a small anthology of stories, some only a few paragraphs in length, some several pages. It is no simple task to codify what makes up a Zen story. Page by page, I found myself surprised at what I found next. There are the classic Zen tales in here, that is, what you might imagine when you think of Zen. For example, The Sound of a Single Hand. (In the depths of the innermost self, more remote than the farthest mountain, and closet than close, lies the secret house of the sound of one hand. Enter!) That sounds pretty Zen, no?

But several of the stories are actually funny, and seemed patterned after jokes, with a setup, a reveal and a punch line. Like the Lion and the Tiger, which ends with the presumed lion seemingly about to kill the poor man dressed in the tiger outfit, but who instead whispers, “Not to worry. I’m the same as you.”
Ikkyu’s Poison almost seems patterned after a classic trickster tale, in which a clever child outwits his master. It is a funny, clever story, but it made me wonder, what is being taught? Should we not be looking to the Zen Master for wisdom? Instead, the story extols the child and his cleverness to get around the master’s rules.

In my last review, I looked at The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth. I was very pleased to find the same story contained within this collection as well, although with a slightly different title: The Three Answers.

This version seems more of a classic retelling. It is not a child and his talking animal friends to whom we are introduced, but rather, an emperor and a hermit. There are also no wounded panda bears, but rather a wounded soldier with a specific vendetta.

“During the last war you killed my brother and took away my lands,” says the soldier. “So I swore vengeance and vowed to kill you.”

This version definitely ups the stakes, and speaks a further truth about forgiveness.

Last time, I posed the questions the narrator asks, but I did not reveal the answers. This time I thought I would not give the questions, but instead list the hermit’s answers:

The present moment is the only moment.

The most important person is always the person you are with.

And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy.

That is not to say there are no anthropomorphic animals here. In The Fish in the Sea, two fish are trying to unravel the great mystery: What is the sea? In fact, Rafe Martin gives a nice insight into this anthropomorphic practice in his introduction:

"In folktales and fairy tales ravens, bees and ants talk, clods of earth, raindrops, pebbles, and trees converse freely. We might discover that during the depths of the night the stars can answer the flowing streams. In such folk stories the universe itself is revealed to be one great ongoing conversation in which everyone and everything participates equally."

I'm going to remember that the next time I watch an old Disney cartoon with my son.

The story which for me spoke most directly, was Mountains and Rivers.

“Before I grasped Zen,” says an old woman to her grandson, “the mountains were only mountains and the rivers were only rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers were no longer rivers. But when I understood  Zen, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

This made perfect sense to me – I think – but the child doesn’t seem interested. “The river’s right here and it’s a hot day,” he says. “Can’t we go swimming?”

“Of course! Just jump right in!”

This will have to serve as the conclusion of my series of Zen Picture Books. To see all of the books I’ve reviewed in this category, please click here.

It’s a topic I went to explore further - I didn't even get to any of the picture books about the life of the Buddha himself - but for now, my favorite holiday is quickly approaching! Stay tuned!


The Rough-Face Girl (1992)

Retold by Rafe Martin

Illustrated by David Shannon

Text set in Veljovic

G.P. Putnams' Sons

When Arlo first learned that this was a David Shannon book, he was surprised - as was I. The paintings are just so... earnest. Beginning with the cover, which I could look at for a year and a day, waiting for her to move the hands from her face, just a centimeter, as I know she is about to, and then continuing into the early morning mist revealing a small encampment by the shores of Lake Ontario, followed by the two sisters standing over the eponymous rough-face girl, their eyes lost in shadow as they gloat above a roaring fire. They look hollow. They look like evil statues. These are paintings which carry weight.

This is a Cinderella story, and it is also a retelling of the Sootface story which I reviewed last week. Sootface was Ojibwan, this story is Algonquin.

The former heroin had a face of soot, this girl has sisters who "made their youngest sit by the fire and feed the flames." Over time, as the sparks do their worst to her flesh, her skin begins to take on a rough appearance.

Beyond that, the two stories were very much the same. I noted that neither one begins with the appearance of the Invisible Warrior. We are introduced to him and his sister and their large wigwam before we meet the Rough-Faced girl and her wicked sisters.

All of the women of the village go to the wigwam of the Invisible Being and are then challenged by the sister.

"If you want to marry my brother, you have to have seen him. Tell me, have you seen the Invisible Being?"

"Of course!"

"What's his bow made of?"

"The great oak tree."

"No! What's the runner of his sled made of?"

"The green willow branch."

"No! You have not seen my brother. Now go home."

So then, it is the rough-face girl who makes the journey to the wigwam, and as she walks, she must put up with the taunts and jeers of the other women. "Go home, you ugly girl! You'll never marry the Invisible Being!"

Here the tale diverges quite a bit from Sootface. I noted that in Sootface, when the young heroine is asked about the Invisible Warrior, she responds that his bow is made of the rainbow. We see a normal-sized warrior approaching holding a bow which indeed appears to be a rainbow - or perhaps a rainbow colored piece of wood.

In The Rough-Face Girl, Shannon paints a gorgeous, 2 page spread of an unfolding landscape. "As she walked on, she saw the great beauty of the earth and skies spreading before her. And truly she alone, of all in that village, saw in this thing the sweet yet awesome face of the Invisible Being."

A very large, and very real rainbow arcs down from the skies.

Later, as night has fallen, and she is asked by the sister to tell of the Invisible Being's sled runner, she looks up into the starry skies and answers, "Why, it is the Spirit Road, the Milky Way of stars that spreads across the sky!"

There is the sense, then, that the Invisible Being is not a person at all, but a spirit which surrounds the whole of the earth. Perhaps the problem with the other sisters was that they took the questions too literally, trying to discern an invisible apparition, with the Invisible Being was with them and apparent the entire time. From this point of view, then, it seems The Rough-Face Girl - though beginning as a Cinderella story certainly, ends up being about a young woman's spiritual awakening, seeing for the first time the supernatural properties of the natural world.

Click here for more Native American tales!

Click here for more Cinderella stories!
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