Friday, April 17, 2015

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Rootabaga Stories.

Ah, the good ol' USA! It's a country that sometimes seems to have everything. However, there is something that this country has never really been able to lay a claim to. The United States has never had its own fairy tales! Maybe it's because of how young this country is. Maybe it's because of how this country came of age with the Industrial Revolution, which gave the world easy access to newspapers and books as well as television and radio years later. For whatever reason, there aren't any home-grown American fairy tales. Sure, we have tall tales, legends and ghost stories. There are also European tales that have been transplanted and taken on an American flavor, like the Jack tales of the Appalachian mountains. I've even encountered some unique takes on the old tales that hail from the Scoharie region of Upstate New York. However, there aren't any that just sprang up from the fertile soil of the United States.

Now, I know what some of you are saying. "Since when are any fairy tales homegrown? Don't most of them travel a bit?" Well, you may be right. However, that didn't stop some writers from trying to create fairy tales just for the US of A. American writers like Frank Stockton, Howard Pyle and L. Frank Baum have all created their own fairy stories. Now, this is during a time when the words "fairy tale" were pretty much synonomous with "fanciful stories for children". So, most of these tales reflect that more than the various grace notes and motifs that scholars associate with fairy tales. Also, as noted in a post by our friend Gypsy on Once Upon a Blog, American fairy tales seem to less often emphasize changes in status as much as just embracing the life in front of you. However, they do tend to be full of wit and whimsy.

Now, of all the various writers who attempted to created American fairy tales, there is probably one whose literary credentials outstrip all others. That would be the great American writer and poet Carl Sandburg!
Sandburg was a unique American voice. He had been a writer, poet, journalist and critic as well as doing a number of other jobs like being a bricklayer, a farm hand, porter and soldier. He even spent some time travelling the railways as a hobo! It was during his transient days that he learned many American folk songs. These songs would eventually be published by Sandburg in book form and he would often perform them at speaking engagements. He was even one of the men who popularized the ballad of John Henry (something I neglected to mention in an earlier blog post). It was later that for his three daughters he decided to create his own American fairy tales, feeling that the European tales weren't quite appropriate for a generation of children living in a time and place far removed from kings and castles. It was thus that Rootabaga Stories was born.

The Rootabaga Stories are a collection of interconnected, fanciful stories set in a fictional version of the Midwest called "Rootabaga Country". The book starts out with a man named Gimme the Ax and his children Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions (Odd names, but it's not like "Snow White" is any more normal). These three are happy at first until they realized that everything always seemed the same. They then go and sell everything and buy train tickets to the end of the line which leads to the Rootabaga Country. On their way, they go through the Over-Under Country where trains always pass over and under each other but never side by side. Then they go past the land of the balloon-pickers where people on stilts pick the balloons that grow in the sky. Then, they went past the place where circus clowns come from. The clowns are actually baked in great, big ovens like gingerbread men or ceramic figures coming out of a kiln (depending on your feelings about clowns, this may sound either creatively whimsical or downright frightening). Then, finally, they made it to the Rootabaga Country where pigs wear bibs and the train tracks run in zigzags.

From this beginning descriptrion, you may have realized something. These stories are downright crazy. No, really. If L. Frank Baum's stories were whimsical, then Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories are whimsy on overdrive.

Even the language is strange. Take this description of Gimme the Ax's children growing:

"Please Gimme grew up and his ears got longer. Ax Me No Questions grew up and her ears got longer."

Or how about this description of a character named Eeta Peeca Pie:

"Eeta Peeca Pie grew up with wishes and wishes working inside him. And for every wish inside him he had a freckle outside on his face".

The Rootabaga Stories are filled with characters like this with strange names. Others include the Potato Face Blind Man, Bimbo the Snip and Rags Habakuk. The stories about all these characters often seem to be of the serendipitous sort. A character starts in a certain position, strange and magical things happen to them and then eventually it all ends and they're back to where they begun with no harm done. This is a considerable difference from the traditional European fairy tales that concern themselves with a change in status. For example, Cinderella starts out a servant and ends up a princess or Jack starts out poor and ends up rich. There are some Rootabaga tales that have a bit of melancholy to them. For example, "The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child" ends on a bit of a sad note similar to the way many of Andersen's tales do.

Sandburg does make good on using American objects in his tales. Other than skyscrapers, there are also trains, jack rabbits, wooden cigar store indians and corn fairies. All without a king or princess in sight.

If it seems I'm having trouble describing these stories, you might be right. I read them weeks ago and am still not sure I've fully processed them. These stories simply have to be read to be believed. And you can do that by clicking right HERE.


  1. Thanks, Adam, I've downloaded he book. And really, you shouldn't underestimate those tall tales and ghost stories - they ARE your fairy tales and they're wonderful!

    1. Oh trust me, I don't underestimate the tall tales, legends and ghost stories. You may have noticed that Fairy Tale Fandom is very inclusive. I've already covered John Henry in "The Stuff of Legend" and I wrote a "Top Seven American Ghost Stories" piece this past October when I did that Halloween stunt.

      Also, I'll say it now and I'll probably write about it in a post somewhere down the line, but the scholarly term "fairy tale" and the popular culture term "fairy tale" are two different things. Around here, I tend to embrace the latter.