Legends of Myself 24

Posted on August 26, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 23

24. Grade Two: Literary Criticism in Cloverdale, Pt. 1

In 1957, Ingmar Bergman released ‘The Seventh Seal’, adding yet another level of cachet to the subtle wars of chess.  Teddy Geisel published ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and, in England, Allen Ginsberg published ‘Howl’.  Dr. Suess’ Cat housed some anarchy under his Hat admittedly, but it was Allen G’s jazz-inspired beats and howls that the US Customs courteously seized and persecuted for obscenity—yes, and the street-cred harvest for our angel-headed hipster has never run out, thank you, gentle bureaucrats.

Myself, I began grade two.

Grade two was not at all like grade one.  I developed no special relationship with a teacher.  In fact I can’t recall—in Cloverdale or for the rest of the school year—an interaction with a teacher of any shape or flavour.  I remember one sitting at the front of the class, head bent over, reading Uncle Remus aloud.  That’s all.

The school in Cloverdale was larger than the one in Mission, multi-roomed, upgraded to modern, with even its own library.  I remember that library more than any actual lessons.

Thus I refute the candy barI favoured fairytales then as I do now, but at that age a taste for fantasy was mainstream even for the later-life literal-minded.  I remember a story that promised magic, an eternal chocolate bar.

If you nibble it, says the fairy to the boy, the bar will last forever.  Oh thank you, Tantalus, for a gift I’m never allowed to enjoy!  The boy grows tired—and why not?—of nibbling.  Myself, I understood already that it takes a handful of huckleberries—and it’s worth picking and patience and searching the bush—to get a real mouthful.  A real mouthful was all he was after when the boy put the entire bar into his mouth and (Horace, who put the god in the machine?) accidentally swallows it.

Such a greedy greedy boy, winds up with a stomach ache, so there.

Swindle!  Teddy for the defense says that if the boy really didn’t intend to swallow the chocolate bar, then he was being punished for an accident.  That’s just mean.  And worse (if it pleases the court) what good was nibble, nibble, nibble?  No thanks, Tinker Belle, take your lifetime supply of not-enough, dissatisfaction guaranteed.  That’s just a belly-ache trap.

The author of the book (and fellow-traveling school librarians) didn’t understand magic, story or life, and they egregiously underestimated the fine eye for justice of a seven-year-old.  Not chocolate nor magic can sell a joyless philosophy when you’re caught fudging the moral.

And before you go, let’s sing along (children, take the bass parts):

Joyless grows the twig,

O, joyless grows the tree, hey diddle-i-day.

Thelma, Louise and the Gingerbread Man.  I didn’t do all my reading that year in the library.  I remember sitting at my desk while the Gingerbread Man snarked,

Run, run, as fast as you can

You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!

He was a game guy for pastry, and he made a game run.  Dog, horse, cow and villager give chase and fall behind, but that isn’t enough.  For all of everything, he gets eaten by the fox.  I didn’t know what to make of that.  He did seem too sure of himself, that G-man, and hardly polite enough, but the conclusion felt extreme.  Thelma and Louise rewritten for the nursery set. — And it had the effect of making the Gingerbread Man’s epic escape entirely futile.

No pastry, not even doughty Olympian pastries, shall escape the plate, was that the message?

Well, the refrain was catchy.

More satisfying, if you prefer escapes, was the way Brer Rabbit got away from Brer Fox. 

 Briar Rabbit.  It was Uncle Remus’ story of the Tar-Baby that I remember the teacher reading that time in the front of the class.  Of course she had to read it aloud.  The original version of the story by Joel Chandler Harris was written in the late nineteen century using a thick plantation dialect—according to some, accurate—which even an adult reader would find difficult to decipher.  I suspect the version I heard was toned down somewhat, the dialect not quite as dense, but still beyond the word-deciphering skills of any of the audience that day.

So our teacher did the talking for Uncle Remus.

The ending I remember for the story, a satisfying and famous one, was actually taken from another story in the story sequence, which again argues that the version I heard was not the original.  Disney used the version I heard in the movie “The Song of the South” and in Disney’s own line of Uncle Remus publications.

This isn’t at all an argument for changing it back.  Even if it wasn’t already all right to shift story elements around as needed—part of what story-tellers do anyway—the Disney version is perfectly legitimate.  It exists, for instance, in a virtually identical form in North American Aboriginal story traditions–anywhere there are pine trees–where instead of tar they use a pine-pitch doll.  In that tradition, the rabbit also escapes into the briar patch using reverse-psychology, feigning the greatest fear for the thing he fears least.

The Remus story, if you forgive me for reminding you, features Brer Rabbit and his enemy Brer Fox.  To catch the rabbit, the fox devises a little figure out of tar, dresses it up and puts it by the road.  When the rabbit comes along, he mistakes the figure for a real person and tries to talk to it.  When it doesn’t answer, the rabbit takes that as impolite and gives the figure a poke, immediately getting stuck.  And of course the more he resists, the more the tar ensnares him, until he is hopelessly trapped.  Now Brer Fox triumphantly emerges from where he was hiding.

“Caught you!”

“Oh, don’t throw me in the briar patch,” cries Brer Rabbit.

Which, to spite him, is exactly what Brer Fox does.

Then Brer Rabbit says, “Thank you, the briar patch is my home.”  And makes his escape.

‘Well, of course,’ I thought as I listened to this, ‘the fox should have thought of his name, Briar Rabbit.’  Then I thought, ‘But if he’s Briar Fox, can’t he just jump into the briar patch after him?’

Oops.

Of course it was Brer Rabbit, not Briar Rabbit, but how was I to know that?  I didn’t have the spelling in front of me.  I had never in my life encountered a briar patch, and if I had, I would have still been unfamiliar with the form of address in use:  Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox.  I didn’t figure out what the Brer in Brer Rabbit stood for until many years after that grade two classroom.  Even after I corrected my goof with ‘Briar Rabbit’, I continued for some time to think that Brer was some kind of naming tradition peculiar to that series of stories.  Which didn’t, therefore, have to make sense.

Teddy, you see, was from the north not the south, from 1957 not 1887.  No, brother, and I don’t mean it to come over unfriendly, but Brer doesn’t sound, never sounded, like Brother to me.

Continued at Legends of Myself 25

Posted in: autobiography