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!
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.
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.