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Archive for January, 2011

The Old Man and the Knobby Little Man

There once was an Old Man who had grown bored of sitting around his house and decided to go out into the world and become King.  It was an odd notion, to be sure, but like I said he was old and bored and his time was his own.

He left his house without even a change of clothes and soon grew weary walking along the road.  He heard a carriage coming and figured he’d hitch a ride for a while, maybe even get lucky and find a kingdom along the side of the road in need of a new ruler.  When the coach drew near the Old Man noticed that it didn’t have a driver so he hopped up and took the reins.  No sooner had his hands touched the leathers the coach jerked to a stop, throwing the occupant head-first into the carriage wall.

“Horse!  What the blue blazes is wrong with you!”

Out of the coach stepped a Knobby Little Man with a pock-marked face and a beard down to his knees.

“What are you doing with my coach?” said the Knobby Little Man. “That horse obeys no one but me and has been trained to disobey thieves on the road.  You a thief?”

“I saw it was without a driver and thought it might have been running wild,” said the Old Man. “I was only trying to help.”

“Ah, but you didn’t admit you weren’t a thief!” said the Knobby Little Man. “Fair enough.  What do you want?”

“I’ve decided to become a King. I’ve taken to the road to find my destiny.”

The Knobby Little Man looked at the Old Man in disbelief.  Was the Old Man daft?  Had he taken a bullet in some old war that shifted in his brain?  The Knobby Little Man laughed.

“Well, I tell you what.  Until you find your kingdom how’d you like to work for me?  You come with me as my guest and see what I have to offer and then you can decide.”

The Old Man couldn’t be sure the Knobby Little Man wasn’t trying to trick him, but he was hungry and it was getting dark and he figured he could set out to become King the next day.

“Okay,” said the Old Man, “But no funny stuff.”

When the coach arrived at the Knobby Little Man’s place the Old Man whistled. Nestled back from the road was an enormous one hundred room white marble palace, with heated indoor pools, a Roman-style colonnade, and a massive garden full of animal sculptures with their heads cut off.  The Old Man thought it a perfect palace for a king, except for the weird statues.

“Listen,” said the Knobby Little Man, “I’m only home a few hours a month, so here’s the deal: You stay here, feed my horse all the meat it wants, feed my poodle all the hay it can eat, and you can do whatever you like in any of the rooms in my house except the one room with the black door on it.”

“That’s it? Feed the horse, feed the dog, do whatever I want, stay away from the black door?”

“Like I said, I’m hardly ever here,” said the Knobby Old Man, “I don’t know why I still keep this place. What do you say?  It’s like a palace, right?  Call yourself king if you want.”

The Old Man agreed, and was eager for the Knobby Little Man to leave so he could have the place to himself and go exploring.

“Oh, and one last thing. I’ve trained this horse in many things — he’s a very special horse — but no matter what he would have you believe, you must always search your heart for the truth.”

“Okay,” said the Old Man, but what he really wanted to say was “What a crock!  A talking horse?”

And that was the last the Old Man saw of the Knobby Little Man.  With the place to himself he ran around naked jumping in and out of all the heated pools, wore a sheet like a toga and ate standing up in front of the refrigerator, he jumped up and down on the beds and found a library to rival the one said to have been lost at Alexandria. After a few hours of this he wondered if he really wanted to be King or just live in a fancy place and act like one. Then he remembered he had to feed the horse and the poodle.

After watching the Old Man run around the poodle was a little wary of him.  He arranged her hay in a nice neat pile but she didn’t seem interested.  “Suit yourself,” said the Old Man, “You can’t say I didn’t feed you.”

Out in the barn the Old Man found the horse trying to scratch out math problems on the floor.  He set down a bucket of beef brisket but the horse simply snorted.

“Look, I’m only doing what your master said.”

“That makes him your master as well,” said the horse.

“You can talk!”

“Better than you can think for yourself.”

“What do you mean?” said the Old Man.

“Does it make any sense to you, feeding a dog hay and a horse meat?”

The Old Man shook his head.

“Listen, I know he gave you that speech about searching your heart for the truth. What does your heart say about feeding meat to a horse and hay to a dog?’

The Old Man thought about it and without another word he jumped up and brought the bucket-o-brisket to the dog and brought back a bale of hay for the horse.  The horse ate until its belly had threatened to touch the ground, and when the dog was finished she came and curled up in the barn with the horse.

“Wow, you two must have been starved,” said the Old Man.

“You have no idea,” said the horse. “So let me make it up to you.  How would you like to truly be a king, with servants and a treasury full of gold, and people to amuse you all day long.”

“You can do that?”

“There’s a little work involved, but, yeah, I can do that.”

And the horse explained to the Old Man how it would be.  At dawn, the Old Man would need to go into the forbidden room, the one with black door.  Inside the Old Man would find three golden candlesticks.  He would need to grab the candlesticks and hurry out of the room before the door closed and sealed him in the room.  Then the Old Man and the Poodle would climb on the back of the horse and make a run for it.

“And then I’ll be King?”

“Would I lie to you?” said the horse.  The Old Man searched his heart and couldn’t imagine why the horse would lie, and so at dawn he did as he was told and soon they were on the road.

It wasn’t long before they heard the Knobby Little Man running behind them, gaining in speed.

“How can he do that?” said the Old Man.

“Quick!” said the horse, “Throw one of the candlesticks over your shoulder!”

The Old Man did, and when it hit the ground it became a thick river of tar that slowed the Knobby Old Man down.  Soon though the Knobby Old Man had crossed the river and was gaining speed again.

“Your master is unreal!  What do we do now?”

“The second candlestick,” said the horse.

With the second candlestick there appeared a mammoth wall made of jagged glass stones.  It was so high that it went far beyond the tops of the trees.  The horse put some distance between them but soon the Knobby Little Man had scaled the wall, jumped down, and was gaining on them.

“Third time’s the charm,” said the horse.

The third candlestick exploded on impact and became a mountain of sea urchins that buried the Knobby Little Man.  The horse ran for three straight days and in that entire time they never saw the Knobby Little Man again.

The next part of the horse’s plan involved a little bit of effort on the Old Man’s part.

“Let me get this straight,” said the Old Man, “We go down to that valley where two armies are fighting and I enlist with one of the sides. The dog here turns into a suit of armor and we charge out in front of the battle for three days in a row.  Each time we do, the other side gets spooked and backs off and after the third time they make me… the King’s gardener?”

“It’s an incremental plan,” explained the horse. “The last time they promoted a king from an enchanted warrior they later regretted it and vowed never again to promote from the military. But when their king asks you to claim a reward, you ask to work the royal gardens.  They’ve never had an enchanted gardener king before!”

“So, wait. I become a gardener, and then perform some kind of magic—”

“Details, details,” said the horse, “I’ve got you covered.”

“And they promote me to king?”

“Pretty much.”

“And then what?”

“Well…” said the horse, in a drawn out tone that caused the Old Man to worry a little. “Once you’re King, you would finally be in a position to grant the poodle and me a wish.”

“Is this some sort of trick?” said the Old Man.

“Again, this is on you,” said the horse, “Trust your heart.”

The Old Man thought about everything he’d been told.

“This is an awful lot of work to be a King.”

“If I knew a quicker way, I’d tell you,” said the horse.

“Why doesn’t she ever say anything?’ said the Old Man, pointing to the poodle.

“It just doesn’t work that way,” said the horse.

So with a heavy sigh the Old Man agreed, and wore the dog like a magical suit of armor, into battle three times, became an enchanted gardener, and finally, eventually, the Old Man had become the New King.  There followed much feasting and rejoicing, an entire month’s worth of celebrations on the New King’s behalf.  There were nights full of running around naked into heated pools, and days full of jumping on beds, and parties full of people wearing sheets like togas and standing around eating food, only this time he wasn’t alone, this time the New King could pick and choose from among his subjects to join him. He had a full treasury and subjects dedicated to his every whim.

But after nearly a month of this gaiety things calmed down and the New King remembered his promise to the horse. He stole away to the royal stables and found the horse and the poodle nestled into the far corner, sad and forlorn.

“I was beginning to believe you had truly forgotten us,” said the horse.

“A sad oversight on my part, I assure you. I had no idea the celebrations would go on for so long!”

“Shall we get down to business?” said the horse.

“What can I do for you, now that I am king.”

“You must take your royal sword and release us from our prison.”

“Huh?”

“I was once an enchanted prince, bewitched by the Knobby Old Man and turned into a horse, and I can only be released by having my head chopped off by a King who is noble and true.”

“What!” said the New King.

“Arf!” said the poodle, who had never uttered a sound before.

“And her.  She was a princess and my bride-to-be and was likewise bewitched. Cut her head off as well and she will be released.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” said the New King.

“And once you have freed us we can go off and live as happily as the day we first fell in love.”

“Arf! Arf!”

The New King remembered all that had happened, all he had been told and all he had seen.  He had gone out into the world to become a King and he owed everything he was to the cunning and wisdom of the horse. He did not search his heart which would have told him it was wrong, but a month of royal celebration had dulled his senses and clouded his thinking.  Without a further second of hesitation the King took his sword and swiftly chopped off their heads with a single blow. He thought there might have been a blinding light or a puff of smoke but nothing happened. All he saw before him were the heads of the horse and the dog on the ground facing one other.

“Why did you do that?!” said the horse.

“It’s what you told me to do!” said the King

“I told you he’d fail,” said the dog, who had a very lovely voice after all.

“I did everything else you told me to do and it all worked out perfectly!” said the King.

“You forgot,” said the dog. “The one time you forgot to remind him.”

“Remind me of what?” said the King.

“Your heart…” said the horse, who was starting to lose consciousness. “I forgot… to remind you… to search your… heart for… the…”

And the horse closed his eyes and he was dead, as was the poodle.

Then a fog appeared, an ominous fog that smelled of low tide and swallowed up the kingdom leaving the New King alone in a bog.  And out of the fog came a voice.

“Turns out you were a thief after all.  Then again, you never said you weren’t, so you got that going for you.”

The fog cleared a little and a figure stepped into the clearing.

“You almost made it, all of you,” said the Knobby Little Man.  “You were all so very close.  If you had forgotten your promise for just one more day the horse would have lost his ability to talk and you would have gone mad trying to convince your subjects that he had once given you counsel.  Your subjects would have banished you and killed the horse and the dog and been done with you all.”

“But I didn’t forget,” said the New King, a creeping sense of dread climbing up his spine as the Knobby Little Man stepped closer.

“No, you remembered just in time. Then you were supposed to refuse to chop off their heads, the horse would insist, you refuse a second time, the dog was supposed to bite you, and then you would throw down your sword and they would be released and I would be vanished.  Just like that, you all would have lived as if in a fairy tale, happily ever.”

“A test,” said the New King.  “It was a test of my faith.”

“Eh, call it what you will. It was all part of the spell. The dog was good, though. If she spoke at any point along the way it would have been the same as you lobbing of their heads.”

“So you’ve been waiting for one of us to make a mistake, waiting to step forward and punish us?”

“Actually, I caught up with you as fast as I could.  I had to eat my way from beneath that mountain of sea urchins.  That took a bit longer than I reckoned. Next time I’ll have to make it something a little easier to get through, like tapioca. As for punishment, that’s not my thing. I’m an old sorcerer. I work spells from old books. I live as I like and I do as I please, but never to punish people.  I find people tend to punish themselves pretty good without my assistance”

“Now what,” said the Old Man, who was no longer a King.

“Well, it’s up to you, really.  You’re about a thousand leagues from people in any direction.  There’s no food or water between here and there, and I can’t guarantee you won’t come across an occasional beasty or two. They might be real and they might be figments of your imagination but either way they’ll be deadly. Or you can sit here for eternity and ponder all the things you’ve seen and had and lost. Either way, you have found your destiny.”

The Old Man sat down on a nearby rock and when he looked up the Knobby Little Man had vanished.

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c. 2011 david elzey

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What is the New Grimmoire? A general explanation lies here.

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I wasn’t originally planning to weigh in on this whole “Chinese Mothers Are Superior” thing because I felt like everyone had already put a dog into the fight.  I’m not a mother, I’m not Chinese, and I am equally appalled by the various ways I’ve seen parents raise their children, so I wasn’t really sure I wanted to wade into this, but I’m still thinking about some personal experiences that won’t let it rest.

During my first two years of college I encountered kids who were raised by Chinese parents the way that Amy Chua raises her kids. My first roommate spent his every waking moment outside of class studying and half way through the semester, when he learned that he would not be able to pull straight A’s in all his classes, he disappeared.  One day he was there on the other side of the room, the next all that was left was the dorm furniture and a pencil.  I asked around and learned he had dropped out of school, and about a month later someone said they saw him selling cars in downtown Oakland. His was the happiest story.

In the spring a girl who had similarly been nose-down working for nothing but straight A’s didn’t do so well in one class, packed her things and shipped them home.  She never made it home.  Her parents called because they received the shipped personal items but the girl never made it home. Her roommate said that the night before she disappeared all she talked about was the shame she was bringing upon her family. We didn’t understand it at the time.

My second year of college a third kid disappeared, and this was our window into what was happening. A kid down the hall had become increasingly agitated about his grade performance and would keep his roommate up late at night cursing. Apparently he was verging on dropping below an A- and even the A- was causing him stress.  His roommate asked him why he was beating himself up and the kid explained that this was how he was raised. His parents, his mother especially, pushed him and his siblings to excel and would accept nothing less. They made it very clear that anything less than perfection was not an option, and would disown him if he failed to meet their expectations. His roommate thought it was harsh, and thought he might have been exaggerating a little, but wasn’t laughing a week later when the kid disappeared.

Campus police investigated, a letter was found, and a cursory search was made in the waters around the Golden Gate Bridge where the kid’s note said he was planning to jump from. When the dorm managers asked the family what they wanted done with their son’s personal belongings they were told “We have no son.” It was never clear to us whether they were more ashamed by the suicide or the grade failure.

Years later when I was a public school teacher I encountered some of these parents. During parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights they would make their expectations very clear to me, and it was generally the mothers who were the most concerned about their children’s grades. As Chua points out it wasn’t always Chinese parents, and it got so that when you met a student you knew which ones had the strict parents at home.  They weren’t as social, kept to themselves, never attended any school activities. They would occasionally check in to see if there was extra credit work they could do, some even saying their mothers told them expressly to ask for extra work. Other kids would tell us stories about Chinese school where kids would spend several hours after their public school day, and weekends, translating their American schoolwork into Chinese.

And all this for what?

Do the ends justify the means?

I saw three kids pushed to the brink, where anything less than perfection was failure, and I find the argument that this is superior parenting arrogant . Yes, on their own, kids will be lazy, and in that weird way that kids are they do crave to be pushed. Yes, parents can and should want their children to excel and succeed and be the best people they can possibly grow up to be. But a world without unstructured play, without instrument beyond piano and violin, without choice in extracurricular activities sounds far from superior to me.

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hit lists

A recent post of mine had a WordPress-recommended “along the same lines” link that brought me back to a post I did last March about all the things I was tired of seeing in books I was reading.  Then a couple of days ago on Twitter I caught a link to an article from the recent SCBWI Bulletin that was an update of an earlier list on the most over-used things in middle grade and YA.

While Joelle Anthony’s list has many things I agree with, I think the differences in our lists might represent the books we read.  Clearly I don’t read as many books with girls as main characters, and I suspect my list leans more toward middle grade (a heavy influence in the year leading up to that post) where I suspect her list leans more toward YA.

Also, where Joelle is clear about saying that her list is not to be taken as a “never” list, I think I might still be leaning toward the “stop, now, please” end of the spectrum.

Joelle Anthony’s The NEW Red-Haired Best Friend article.

My post In Moratorium.

I think I will add one thing that isn’t on either list that has to do with the vogue of calling everything written in three lines with a meter of five syllables/seven syllables/five syllables haiku. This would be akin to defining a limerick as five lines with an AABBA rhyme scheme without mentioning its rhythms or the usual “twist” ending.  The haiku isn’t simply about syllables, but about an observation made in two lines with a new awareness in the third (or vice versa); the haiku isn’t simply a sentence seventeen syllables that can be broken up, or a combination of sentences that are jammed into the structure.  Most often, the most egregious of these haiku violators are aimed at a boy audience with subjects like zombies and pirates and just plain ol’ boy activity, done with a wink that says “Hey, kid, poetry can be FUN!”  The problem is that it cheapens the haiku form, presents bad examples as good, and suggests that a reader doesn’t need to know the difference. All of that to say No more bad poetry fobbed off as haiku.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Read everything and judge for yourself, as I always say.

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I just finished a trio of “graphic novels” and they’ve put a tempest in my teapot again about the term. Despite their Library of Congress subject demarcation as graphic novels the phrase that would best describe these three books are comic book, comic adventure, picture book with pretensions.

[For those worried that I’m talking about Cybils-nominated titles, fear not.  But out of some weird desire not to be too negative I will not be listing the titles and authors here. If I do feel compelled to comment I’ll do so in formal reviews at that other blog of mine.]

Yes, this is me once again railing about using “graphic novel” to describe books intended for children and young adults that, to my thinking, fail to earn that title. It has become a hip way to market certain titles with comic book elements that (presumably) elevates them from some lower level of contempt. I don’t know if publishers are consciously aware of this, are parading their ignorance, or simply trying to gild a turd for revenue, but it irks me something fierce when I see inferior quality books heralded by reviewers because they cannot be bothered to see that the emperor is naked.

Just to be clear, what I expect from a graphic novel aimed at children and young adults are the same things I expect from fiction, movies, and any other art that falls under the general category of storytelling. I don’t believe that simply stringing out a weak picture book plot over twice as many pages with five times the number of illustrations is a substitution for quality.  I don’t think that a mystery series that goes from point A to point B without an ounce of characterization makes it good just because it appeals to readers.  I don’t care how proficient the art is, if you wouldn’t publish the story as a fictive narrative then i see no reason to publish it without demanding the same sort of story revisions authors are asked to perform.

When I pick up a book that uses sequential storytelling as its genre here’s what I look for:

  • A main character with a clearly delineated goal or conflict
  • Secondary characters with their own, occasionally conflicting, objectives
  • A resolution that provides either the main character or the reader with a sense of having gained something from the experience
  • A reason why the story needed to be told in a graphic format

You might be surprised at how many “graphic novels” fail to provide many if not most of these points.

For many of the “graphic novels” intended for younger audiences there seems to be this notion that a punchline is good enough, which aligns them closer with a comic strip than a graphic novel.  Picture books can often get away with this punchline structure, and I would argue that many of the “graphic novels” that resemble comic strips could be boiled down to much better, funnier, picture books.  In some ways, the “graphic novel” becomes proof of flabby writing.

But often the question I’m left asking when I finish a “graphic novel” is: why did someone (or several someones, since publishers and editors are involved) feel this story needed to be told and published in this format?  The equivalent is sitting in the theatre after a movie wishing you could have not only your money but those lost two hours of your life back.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt this way with “graphic novels” from large publishing houses.

I think moving forward I’m going to attempt to identify “graphic novels” according to the criteria above in my reviews and see if it holds up. It may turn out that I’ll come across a book that fails on most counts but is still satisfying.  I can’t think of one off the top of my head – perhaps you can – but maybe by this time next year I’ll have identified a trend or adopt some other set of criteria that works better.

As it stands, here’s hoping for better graphic novels and fewer “graphic novels” in children’s literature in 2011.

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Last Thanksgiving I had a spark of jazz reignited by a trip to New Orleans, and while the embers are still flickering a bit this week I found the Lost and Found poetry stretch at the Miss Rumphius Effect was enough to jump-start a memory about trumpeter and flugelhorn player Chet Baker.

Part of the Cool West Coast Jazz scene, Baker had a lazy way of crooning that always feels to me like rolled-up white jeans on a beach and sandpipers and ocean waves like folding butter.  It’s not a clear, strong voice but there’s something there.  I listen to the otherwise upbeat “Let’s Get Lost” and I hear undertones like the true face behind a mask. The song (from 1952, I believe) only reminds me how, after a brief comeback in the late 80s, we was a ramshackle mess. My take on the theme of lost and found, a voice found and a life lost to drug abuse.

missing U

hearing Chet Baker sing
“Let’s Get Lost”
always makes me ponder

how he ended up with a voice
like dusty rosin and whiskey
in the back of the throat

caressing the uvula
eloping with the tongue
past the remnants of his embouchure

softened and sullied
by dentures and heroin
the fading warmth

of a junkie high
pulling memory shards
like splinters of sunlight

burnished over time
with cotton batting
into a bronzed whisper

the pang of youthful yearning
and lovers driving off the map
toward a lazy reverie

that makes me wonder
if Chet was singing
to a mirror

Yeah, jazz poems can be less than cheery. Sorry ’bout that.

Hey! It’s the first Poetry Friday of 2011! Let’s go get lost among the greatness collected over at Live. Love Explore! today!

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The Silver Poplar

In the hills of California there lived a second generation hippie family named Priestly. Flint and Chenille had their teenage daughter Jade when they were far beyond the normal years for starting a family, and were more accustomed to the company of goats, but they love Jade with all their heart.

They were originally named Fromm, but after a distant cousin attempted to assassinate the President some years back they decided to Anglicize their last name to stop folks from asking them questions.  Not that they had a lot of interaction with people.  They had lived off the grid since the late 1960s and only went into town every fall to sell handicrafts and preserves during the harvest festivals. In many ways they were no different from the Amish except that they weren’t farmers, and less social, and probably should have bathed more frequently.

One fall day, as so often happens in California, a Santa Ana wind caught hold of the embers from a homeless encampment nearby and set the hills on fire. The Priestlys had no advance warning of the fire from their non-existent phone or television and were unable to evacuate their rammed earth cabin until it was almost too late.  Surrounded by smoke and flame Jade was separated from her parents and wandered for nearly a day before coming to a fire lane that lead to a town and safety. The fire raged for nearly a week before crews could bring it under control, and Jade staked out the command center in the hopes of hearing word from her parents.  After five days without food or sleep Jade passed out and was taken to an infirmary where she received her first expose to Western medicine and starchy food.

A waitress named Bonnie who volunteered with the Red Cross heard about Jade and decided to take her in.  Bonnie thought it best to keep the girl occupied so she convinced her boss to hire on Jade to help bus tables and run the dishwasher. Over time Jade came to accept that her parents had perished in the fire and resigned herself to a career at the diner.  Bonnie and Jade grew close, like sisters, even going so far as to spend their free days off driving the next town over to shop the better thrift stores and catch the early bird special and Senior Pancho’s.

One day at the diner a mysterious stranger appeared.  Actually he was a scruffy freelance photographer who still dressed like a college kid even though he was nearly 40 years old.  He was kind to Jade and without her realizing it she found herself flirting with him.  He said his name was Seamus but he went by the professional name Shame. Jade found herself spilling her life story to Shame, and by the time he’d finished his grilled cheese on whole wheat with a side of ketchup she would have walked out of the diner and followed him anywhere.

“I’ve got a job up north I need to do, maybe two day’s worth of work,” Shame said. “How ‘bout I pick you up on the way back. You could do some modeling in the Southland.  I know some people…”

The words were barely out of Shame’s mouth before Jade began fantasizing about how many reusable shopping bags she would need to bring all her stuff.  She decided it could all fit into two bags.

Shame drove several hours north to a tent city that had sprung up in the aftermath of the fires. Hundreds of displaced people and pets had converged on a small former mining town and taken it upon themselves to take their insurance money and start over fresh.  A variety of aid organizations helped out with daily needs and the county agreed to help connect them with water and sewer lines.  Shame had been hired to do a photo essay for a magazine and in seeking out an unusual angle came across a couple who were living in a log-lined dugout on the edge of town. The dugout had a small walkway lined with stones and in the front three saplings had been planted in a row. Shame had started taking pictures when the people who lived in the dugout emerged to investigate. They weren’t too keen to have their pictures taken but they became very animated when Shame asked them about the saplings.

“The trees on either side are local pines but the one in the middle is a silver poplar,” the man said. “We saved them from the fire and they have come to represent the life we left behind.”

“Once we settled here in town we meditated until the cosmic spirits confirmed that our daughter had not died in the fire,” said the woman.

“And we planted these trees to represent our family, and we know that as long as the poplar tree is thriving our Jade is still alive,” said the man, who happened to be named Flint Priestly.  The woman was his wife, Chenille.

Shame looked at the two old people, looked at the pathetic saplings, and decided to say nothing about Jade. Instead, he gave them a hundred dollars from his wallet in exchange for permission to take some more pictures. Seeing as the Priestly’s were struggling in an otherwise thriving new town they happily took the money and sent Shame away with a small jar of mountain berry preserves.

After Shame left, the Priestly’s went into town and proceeded to spend all their money equally on canning supplies and fruit. They had hoped to return to living simply and trading as best they knew how.  But while in town the shopkeeper found the Priestly’s to be suspicious and when the police were summoned Flint, who had grown up with fairy tales of police brutality against protestors during the Vietnam War, panicked and began assaulting the officers. In an attempt to flee Chenille destroyed a good deal of merchandise that she couldn’t afford beyond the money Shame had given them.  Charged with disturbing the peace, assaulting an officer, property damage, and under suspicion of theft, The Priestly’s were the first occupants of town’s newly built jail cell.  A county judge came to hear the case, gave the Priestly’s a warning, and let them return home as poor as they were when they went into town.

Shame arrived as promised to pick up Jade and they rode off to the Southland with a tearful farewell from Bonnie. True to his word, Shame hooked Jade up with a modeling agency and she quickly became the new “it” girl for her earthy looks. Her story of losing her parents in the fire, and a gallery show of tasteful nudes shot by Shame, guaranteed Jade would never have to worry about money. Known simply by her first name, she became a brand for natural beauty products, a clothing line made from natural fibers, and the face behind an international movement eliminate shoes.

“Shoes remove our only connection with Mother Earth,” she would say in the television ads, a line her mother had taught her as a child that would echo through her head late at night.

Shame and Jade remained together for years but never married.

Over time it began to eat away at Shame that he’d never reunited Jade with her family.  When had the opportunity he knew he was merely being selfish. He’d wanted Jade all to himself, and seeing how successful and happy she had become he felt he’d made the right decision in not taking her back to the log dugout in the hills. He got out the photos he had taken that day and remembered the story about the three trees. Soon he became obsessed with wondering how the trees were doing. So one day he told Jade he was going on assignment and drove north to see what had happened to Jade’s parents.

The town of Hope, as that is what they had named it, had grown to look like a prosperous small town from another era. Buildings were simple and modest, streets were paved but relatively free of cars as most people walked, and it struck Shame that the town looked as if it had always been there. He had to search long and hard but eventually he found the three trees.  They were no longer in front of a dugout home but instead stood in front of the windows of the town library. The pines on either side had barely grown ten feet but the poplar towered over them and sprung bright green.  The tree had prospered alongside Jade’s success, just as her parents believed it would. But the sickly pines caused Shame some concern.

The town librarian was new to Hope but she had heard stories about the Priestlys. After their incident in jail, they returned home and became reclusive. They ventured out either in the early morning or late evenings and no one knew what they were doing. One day they found Flint sitting on a curb sobbing with a magazine in his hand mumbling something about his lost daughter. The librarian believed that Flint had seen a fashion model who looked like his daughter and it was too much for him to bear. After that they abandoned their home and disappeared, presumably into the woods, and were never heard from again.

Shame returned to the Southland, stopping at a nursery along the way to purchase a silver poplar sapling to give as a gift to Jade. When he arrived Jade eagerly greeted him.

“Were going to have a baby!” she said.

And the three of them grew happily together for for a while beneath the shade of the silver poplar tree they planted in front of their family home.

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© 2010 david elzey

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The New Grimmoire is a story project where I retell and reimagine tales from the Brothers Grimm. They appear here on Thursdays.  Not every Thursday necessarily, but as they make themselves available to my muse.

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what the huck

Seems like once or twice a year Huckleberry Finn finds himself in hot water.  Usually regarding some form of censorship, almost always around Twain’s use of the word nigger.

Yes, the word is hurtful.  It’s also historical.  It is a part of our American heritage, one of the uglier parts, and to ignore it (or worse, to hide behind the phrase ‘the n-word’ as if that somehow makes it more polite for conversation) suggests we are still unable or unwilling to address our nation’s racism head-on.

So how surprising is it to find that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being produced with the word nigger replaced by the word slave and the Injun in Injun Joe expunged completely.*  And by a company called NewSouth Books. The New South, of course, being the term originally used to separate the Southern States from their pre-Civil War plantation-and-slave-owning ways and their modern, more integrated self. Clearly NewSouth (if not the New South) would prefer to whitewash (so to speak) its hurtful history by removing all traces of it from literature.

Once you start ‘cleaning up’ literature, or revising history, in the name of not hurting people’s feelings where do you stop?  If someone objects to the portrayal of Huck’s Pap as a drunkard and abusive, do we remove all references from the next edition? What about the murderous violence in the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons?  Should that go next?

More bizarre to me is that this new edition is prefaced and edited by Twain “scholar” named Dr. Alan Gribben. I don’t doubt Dr. Gribben’s credentials, only that I have a hard time calling someone a scholar who thinks presenting Bowlderizations of classic literature in order to make them “less hurtful, less controversial” is somehow preferential to actually using the text for what Twain intended: as a scathing satire aimed at exposing the very things modern sensibilities find objectionable. It seems to me a scholar would recognize the value of the author’s intent and the opportunities the text provides in opening discussions about the material.

Language has weight and meaning, Dr. Gribben.  I hesitate to point this out, as I’m sure you must have come to realize this during your studies, but the word slave denotes a lower class of human while nigger promotes a person’s belief in another human as a lesser species.  The meaning and intent behind the user’s word choice is evident in how they use it, and Twain understood this, and he was explaining it for the rest of the world to see.  You can travel the world over and find a history of slaves among many (so-called) civilizations; Americans had to invent the word nigger to further underscore their contempt. The word is used as an epithet toward people who are not and never were slaves no mater what its original providence. This is part of Twain’s point.

Dr. Gribben has defended himself against the “textual purists” by suggesting that his edition will allow for the book to be used with a younger, more “general audience.”  I would like to suggest that Dr. Gribben, for all his fine scholarship, doesn’t have the slightest clue about young readers and, in fact, doesn’t respect or trust them to be able to deal with the truth.  You see this a lot, with people making decisions for the good of the children.  Think of the children! It is not only an insult to the intelligence of young readers to suggest as much, it shows a near contempt for educators and professionals who deal with children to know how to present and teach challenging material to those readers.

It isn’t pretty, but the only audience this new edition of Huckleberry Finn will satisfy are those who would prefer that the past be absolved through omission.  Perhaps the next book NewSouth can publish would be a narrative of the settlement of the Oklahoma Territories without mentioning the Trail of Tears.  Or perhaps a version of Farewell to Manzanar that somehow skirts the issue that the Japanese were American citizens.  You know, because we wouldn’t want to upset people by opening old wounds with something as hurtful as the truth.

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* Since posting this I’ve seen reports that the word Injun was removed entirely and others that say it was replaced with Native or Indian. At least they didn’t go with Redskin, but Indian Joe isn’t any more “corrected” that Injun Joe and Native Joe sounds stupid..

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