Friday, April 13

Rootabaga Stories

by Carl Sandburg
illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham
Harcourt 1922

Poet Sandburg was called to create these stories to amuse his own children, and in doing so gave birth to a kind of American fairy tale centered on the ways and manners of the prairie folk at the early part of the 20th Century.

The stories are set in Rootabaga Country, a place at the edge of the grasslands far from the city where the railroad tracks zigzag and villages float with the wind. Real life hardscrabble folk with names like Rags Habakuk and Blixie Bimber run up against talking blue foxes and mystical corn fairies, and inanimate objects like skyscrapers beget railroad trains as offspring. Sandburg the egalitarian gives a beggar like Potato Face Blind Man the same wisdom and dignity as he gives Fire the Goat who knows the secrets of the shadows that walk along the horizon during a sunrise. Throughout, the poet's ear for country vernacular is infused with choice invented words of his own that beg to be read aloud to children who will understand them as they do "adult" words they have never heard before, simply through context.

What is immediately striking about these stories is how much resonance they hold with Baum's Oz books. But where Baum removed his wholesome heroine from her American soil for a land only reached by balloon or tornado, Sandburg offers us a place just off the edge of the map that one can purchase a ticket for... after first selling off all your worldly goods. And the wiggly line-drawn illustrations by the Petershams convey both the era and a sense of whimsy. Baum and Sandburg's tales are cut from the same country cloth and it's a shame that Sandburg's tales seem to have not garnered an equal popularity.

Rooted in the heartland of America they speak with a folksy cadence, centering on the daily events of life or dwelling in a mythical world as imagined by a farm hand two or three generations removed from city life. Innocence walks arm-in-arm with wisdom as youngsters explain the world to their adult uncles and the blind man pities those who have sight but cannot (or will not) see.

The fantastic is celebrated in these tales much the same as they are in Lewis Carroll's works and with equal success. Composed for children, they retain the same appeal in their nonsense while giving children an alternate view of the world that is no less real than the one they confront on a daily basis. I only wish I'd come across these stories when I was younger.

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