Monday, May 28

The Shark God

by Rafe Martin
illustrated by David Shannon
Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine Books 2001

In this adaptation of a native tale from Hawaii, two children, a boy and a girl, find a shark tangled in netting on the shore. Their attempts to get adults to help them are met with derision so the decide to free the shark themselves. The shark can sense the children mean to help and once freed gives them a bit of a nod of thanks before disappearing into the ocean.

Jubilant at their rescue, the children run through the edges of the jungle, stumbling on the king's sacred drum. In their excitement they long to sound the drum, to announce their achievement to the world, but to do so would be kapu (forbidden). But they're kids, they lightly tap the drum anyway, under the watchful smirk of the king who sees it all. Having waited until they have hit the drum the king then calls out his guards to seize the children and have them held for punishment.

Their parents plea to the king, hoping to appeal to his softer side, but his heart has grown cold to the entreaties of his people. Likewise, appeals to the other members of the community are cold and the parents decide that they must make their case elsewhere.

Seeking out the cave of the Shark God they place their lives on the line as the mountain-sized god swoops them up for a snack. After hearing their story the Shark God agrees to help and sends the parents home with instructions to prepare a canoe filled with goods and to wait for a sign.

The Shark God brings about a massive wave that floods the village and frees the children from their cells. The parents, having seen the sign they were waiting for, launched their canoe before the wave hit and were well at sea when their old village was destroyed. They quickly found their children (with the aid of a friendly shark) and the king's drum and with it sail to anew island where they hoped to find (or start) a new community, one with an open heart.

The author points out in an afterword the differences between the original folk tale and the modifications made for this version. The differences mentioned appear slight and motivational and make a good case for maintaining the essence of the original. A little casual Internet research shows that this story has many variations across the South Pacific and not all of them pleasant. In one, "Kauhuhu, The Shark God of Molokai," the children belong to a priest and they are killed for beating on the drums when the chief is away, no mention of freeing a shark. There are greater details about the ordeal necessary for avenging the children's deaths and the wave brings a hoard of sharks who feast on the cold-hearted villagers.

So on the one hand we have these tales collected by a couple of German brothers that are filled with all sorts of strange dismemberings and transformations and gore, and despite there being no solid evidence they were meant for children we consider them as such. On the other hand when we get a story from a non-Western culture we see a need to make it more palatable and perhaps soften the rougher edges? True, many a Grimm tale are themselves softened to the point of innocence though they are far from their original spirit and, for the most part, have been co-opted by Disnefication. But where we have the original tales in translation for ready comparison such isn't always the case and a lesser-known tale like The Shark God, without research, becomes practically gutted and filleted from the original to a piece of nicely presented same at a sushi bar.

In the end, I'm not taking a stand on this book either way. No, really. I read it knowing nothing about its origin and enjoyed it. Had there not be the author's afterword I might not have gone searching for the original story and not known what had been changed. I think I would prefer that when we introduce stories from another culture to children -- especially if there is little to suggest they will one day be taught it's true origins -- then I guess I'd like that "one shot" to be an accurate one. I wouldn't want any child drawing all their knowledge of ancient Egypt from watching mummy movies and don't like the thought of children learning about the culture of our island state in such a sanitized manner.

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