Monday, April 7, 2008

Carl Sandburg

Rootabaga Stories
by Carl Sandburg
Recommended Age: 10+ (to read) or 7½ + (to have read to you)

Here are ten things everyone need to know about Carl Sandburg, who lived from 1878 to 1967.
  1. He was one of the great all-American poets. His Complete Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951. Here is a bit of a poem he wrote, titled “Chicago”—
    Hog Butcher for the World,
    Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
    Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
    Stormy, husky, brawling,
    City of the Big Shoulders...
  2. Besides writing, he plied a number of trades, including boxer, soldier, fireman, and rail-riding hobo.
  3. I forgot to mention that he also spent time as a salesman, an ice harvester, a milkman, a dishwasher, a bricklayer, a farm laborer, and a shoeshine.
  4. The only thing missing from his résumé is a stint as a cowboy. This guy was as all-around, ruggedly American as they get.
  5. And he was from Illinois. You know, “the Land of Lincoln.”
  6. He was also a socialist. Don’t say it! Not a word!!!
  7. He didn’t just write poetry. He won another Pulitzer Prize, in 1940, for his four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.
  8. Sandburg was also a journalist, whose newspaper column sympathized with the plight of the American working class, and who wrote a book-length study of the 1919 race riots.
  9. He also wrote a novel (Remembrance Rock), an autobiography (Always the Young Strangers), a couple volumes of folk songs, and, in 1922, two books of fanciful children’s stories: Rootabaga Stories and, well, More Rootabaga Stories.
  10. He wrote them for his two young daughters, whom he apparently called Spink and Skabootch. Don’t ask.
I bet you didn’t know 9 or 10. I didn’t until just recently. I haven’t run across a copy of More Rootabaga Stories yet [UPDATE: Yes, I have], but I have enjoyed the first book so much that I wonder where it’s been hiding all my life!

Before you read this book—or perhaps, after you’ve tried to read it and stopped because it’s not what you expected—here are 10 things you should know about Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories.
  1. They have a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories—mainly in the “playful nonsense” line, and the way the author stretches and bends (but never quite breaks) the English language.
  2. They have absolutely nothing in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories—for in character and outlook, these fiercely western-American tales are a world apart from the quintessentially British pennings of a fussy Oxford maths tutor.
  3. They have even more in common with L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories—particularly in the way they nurture a distinctive breed of fairy tale, grown in American soil.
  4. They have absolutely nothing in common with L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories—for Baum transplanted a European form into American soil, or at most, spliced together a new tree out of different old ones. Sandburg, on the other hand, seems to have discovered a native plant, growing wild.
  5. So unless you forget about fairy tales as you know them, you will NOT appreciate these “only true American fairy tales” (that’s what the book jacket calls them). They are not what you expect.
  6. Sandburg’s writing has a strange, repetitive, almost ritualistic pattern to it. At first this will seem bizarre, and some people may even find it hypnotic. But remember, these stories were written to send Spink and Skabootch off to sleep at night.
  7. At times, the weirdness of Sandburg’s stories break through to the other side, to a mysterious world of beauty and mystery, and his not-quite-square way of expressing himself starts to sound like something you heard in a dream.
  8. You also have to remember, sometimes, that when this book was written, many street corners had a traffic cop standing there, directing traffic with a whistle and a stick. And the traffic that went by was partly automobile traffic and partly horse-drawn carriages.
  9. You might find it strange that the characters in the first story don’t come back later in the book (with one brief exception). But this isn’t a novel; it’s a book of stories. Only a few of them are really connected to each other - except for the magical land of Rootabaga Country where they all take place, and where ANYTHING can happen, especially when the Watermelon Moon is shining.
  10. I’m not exactly sure where Rootabaga Country is on the map, but apparently it stretches somewhere between Philadelphia (USA) and Medicine Hat (Canada). It may include—but this is only a possibility, because these states are mentioned in the book—the states of Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota, besides points in between. I feel a strong suspicion that the Village of Liver and Onions was somewhere near Chicago.
And now, one final list, which is all that I am going to tell you about what happens in this book: the titles of A FEW of the 25 stories in this book.
  1. “Poker Face the Baboon and Hot Dog the Tiger”
  2. “The Toboggan-to-the-Moon Dream of the Potato Face Blind Man”
  3. “The Story of Jason Squiff and Why He Had a Popcorn Hat, Popcorn Mittens and Popcorn Shoes”
  4. “The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was In It”
  5. “Three Boys with Jugs of Molasses and Secret Ambitions”
  6. “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child”
  7. “The Wooden Indian and the Shaghorn Buffalo”
  8. “How Henry Hagglyhoagly Played the Guitar with His Mittens On”
  9. “Never Kick a Slipper at the Moon” ...and...
  10. “How to Tell Corn Fairies If You See ‘Em”
More Rootabaga Stories
by Carl Sandburg
Recommended Age: 10+ (to read) or 7½ + (to have read to you)

When first published in 1923, the sequel to Rootabaga Stories was titled Rootabaga Pigeons. When re-printed in 1990, the title was changed to Rootabaga Stories, Part Two. And now, just to multiply confusion, they have changed the title again, to More Rootabaga Stories.

The “pigeons” title may be a bit obscure. I think it was a reference to Sandburg’s three young daughters, who were the first children to hear these magical, all-American stories. The dedication is “To Three Illinois Pigeons,” and several of the stories portray hobo-like men (Sandburg’s favorite image for himself) who either have an affectionate bond with pigeons, or whose daughters have actually been turned into pigeons. Nearly all of the stories are tales-within-a-tale, told to young girls by hobo-type characters such as Hatrack the Horse (who isn’t a horse) and the Potato Face Blind Man (who may not actually be blind). And most of the stories take place in a magical country somewhere near Illinois, and whimsically based on that state.

They are odd little stories, too. Just when you think you’re reading complete nonsense, you catch a glimmer of something going on, hidden deep beneath the surface. Quirky word choices, eccentric turns of phrase, ritualistic repetions, and a charming sense of wonder mix with tints of romance, sadness, gentle teasing, and slapstick comedy. Wacky characters with even wackier names (such as Dippy the Wisp and Slip Me Liz) explore strange realms where whole villages blow away in the wind, and air cars drive over an air bridge, and wishes come true, and the rats on the moon put their mittens in the ice-box for the winter. Three of the stories claim to explain how the letter X got into the alphabet. Only one of the stories threatens to have a moral, but it may not actually carry out the threat. And just think, all these things were created as bedtime stories for 3 little Illinois girls. Lucky girls!

Yes, this is the same Carl Sandburg whose Collected Poems and biography of Abraham Lincoln each won a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t think the Rootabaga stories won any prizes, but when I finished reading this second book of them I had to call my mother and read a couple of the stories to her. My mother usually puts up with that patiently, but yesterday [EDIT: Around January 2006 that was] as I read from More Rootabaga Stories, I could hear her moaning with pleasure on the other end of the line. When I was done reading, my mother said, “Those words were like music, like poetry, like poetry in motion! I could literally see the pictures taking shape...” She can’t wait for me to call her again and read some more.

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