Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tales from Silver Lands

Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger (with woodcuts, like the one above that's on the cover of my 1924 edition from my local library, by Paul Honore) won the 1925 Newbery medal.

I really wanted to like this collection of nineteen South American folktales (which Finger says he collected on his travels) more than I actually did. I just liked the idea of kids reading stories from different cultures, I guess. The exotic nature of the stories (which are filled with huanacos, hummingbirds, evil white toads, and the jungles and the mountains of several different countries) appealed to me. But when it came down to the actual stories themselves, I found that many were as vaguely disturbing as the European fairytales that I know better.

Children are kidnapped, there are quests, giants are tricked and die gruesome deaths, a father is enchanted by a scheming stepmother, a magic feather helps a boy kill the last of the man-eating birds, and the origins of monkeys (shown in the woodcut above from "The Tale of the Lazy People", one of the stories I liked more than most), armadillos, and several landscape features are explained in the stories. Some of the stories have a little prelude describing how Charles Finger (shown here during his travels) came to hear them.

The individual stories are short enough to read quickly, and they do have a lingering "flavor", as well as some entertaining or poignant passages, but I had to force myself to finish them. Since this wasn't nearly as long as The Story of Mankind (the 1922 winner), it wasn't that difficult to push on and read about the children in Paraguay who made bad wishes, the little creature that disguised itself as a baby and then ate everything in a village until the hot embers that they gave it mixed with water and made him explode, and other stories like these.

One description of a cat made me think of a friend's pet - and also shows how the stories flow (very poetically, actually):
Many years ago, said Soto, there came into the world a cat. It was in the days when all creatures were harmless; when the teeth and claws of the jaguar did not hurt; when the fang of the serpent was not poisonous; when the very bushes had no thorns. But this cat was of evil heart and unmerciful and a curse to the world, for she went about teaching creatures to scratch and to bite, to tear and to kill, to hide in shady places and leap out on unsuspecting things.
If you like traditional fairytales and folk tales, then I think you'll like at least some of these stories - but I'm afraid this was my least favorite of the handful of Newbery winners I've read so far.