Sunday, April 19, 2009

Newbery IV

In 1925, the book that snagged the Newbery was Tales From Silver Lands, by one Charles J. Finger.

A collection of mostly unrelated stories from South American countries. Based on his narration, Finger presumably traveled all over the continent collecting these stories and tales, unless he's just making up everything out of whole cloth.

That's about it, really. There are explanatory stories ("A Tale of Three Tails," which explains how the rat and deer and rabbit got their tails), fairy tales of recognizable structure and climax ("The Hungry Old Witch," "The Wonderful Mirror"), trickster tales ("El Enano," about a fox who tricks the titular greedy monster into leaving a village) and hero tales ("The Hero Twins” and "The Four Hundred," which tell of how some heroic lads killed three giants).

While the stories are pleasant enough and Finger's authorial voice is kindly and inviting, I didn’t think there was anything remarkable in their characters, plot, or the execution of the telling. Fairy tales can be timeless and enthralling, but there's nothing suspenseful or dramatic about them. And their simplicity isn't a huge draw for me. Hey, the little orphan kid met a magic lady who tells him how to defeat the evil witch! And she's right, because people who seem to be good always are, and bad people are vicious crones or ugly giants! And heaven forfend the hero actually figure out anything on his own. Let the oracle tell him exactly what steps to take.

If I'm in the mood for such things, I'd rather read Kipling or Grimm, who did the same things better. Of all the stories, only the last – "The Cat and Dream Man" – stands out, remarkable for its surreal nature (a destructive, monstrous cat dreams of a fox-faced man who grants wishes in an ironically cruel manner) and the unusual use of a particular magic item (an axe which splits everything it hits into two replicas of the original). For the most part, though, this is pretty ordinary stuff; perhaps in 1926 the then-atypical provenance of the stories made them stand out enough to snag the award.

Recommended for children: Sure, reading fairy tales and folk stories from all over the world is a terrific foundation for kids.

Recommended for adults: Not so much, unless you're a folktale obsessive.

1 comment:

Michael5000 said...

I [heart] the Newbery project. Arbitrary reading lists, ho!