Paul(a) Bunyan: Feminist Tall Tale

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“Everyone knows about Paul Bunyan . . . but not many people know about Paula Bunyan, his little sister. Maybe ‘little’ isn’t the right word. After all, she was as tall as a pine tree and as strong as a dozen moose”–from the New York Times Book Review


 

PaulaBunyan

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew the Romance of the Logger. I used to see in the pine-paneled cafes old photographs of bewhiskered men paired up on crosscut saws wedged into gigantic Douglas firs. Later my contemporaries would admire Gary Snyder as a workingman’s poet because he had spent time logging for a timber company in Oregon. Behind all this was the mythy Paul Bunyan, that giant lumberjack from the North Woods who bestrode entire counties in a single step while accompanied by the equally gigantic Babe the Blue Ox. To be sure, as with other heroes of American fakelore — bear-wrestling Davy Crockett, coyote-raised Pecos Bill, river-boating Mike Fink — there lingered about Paul Bunyan an aroma of frontier development and ­chamber-of-commerce boosterism.

Like other larger-than-life American legends, Paul Bunyan was associated with the tall tale, that narrative offspring of the liars’ convention (“He snored so loud that . . . ”) and the “pourquoi story” (the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota came to be when water filled in the footprints of Babe the Ox). Ultimately, however, the tall tale pictured a disappearing way of life: what if Paul Bunyan ran out of woods?

This is where “Paula Bunyan” begins, on the cusp of cultural change, and Phyllis Root, a Minnesotan herself, wonderfully follows the tradition of the tall tale in telling her story: “Everyone knows about Paul Bunyan, . . . but not many people know about Paula Bunyan, his little sister. Maybe ‘little’ isn’t the right word. After all, she was as tall as a pine tree and as strong as a dozen moose. . . . Paula could run so fast that once when she forgot to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yesterday to finish them.”

Inevitably, Paula is overcome by a hankering for Wide Open Spaces; so, her parents pack her a snack (gallons of cider, bushels of apples, wheels of cheese), and she heads out to that virgin land where the trees are so tall that clouds get stuck in them. In this Peaceable Kingdom, she also teaches wolves to sing three-part harmony and a brown bear obligingly provides a living rug to keep her warm.

Alas, Paula soon discovers a snake in Eden when she comes across a field of stumps. Following the evidence to a gang of lumberjacks, she attracts a flock of mosquitoes the size of chickens to drive them off. Then she sets about replanting the forests. As the story ends, we return to the formula of the tall tale: “If you’re ever up in the North Woods, you might see some of those trees that Paula planted. If you listen carefully . . . you might even hear Paula singing.”

RootBigMommaGiven this green and feminist fable, you will not be surprised to learn that its author also wrote “Big Momma Makes the World,” where the almighty creator is imagined as a take-charge woman with a baby on her hip. Dressed in overalls, Paula Bunyan is likewise pictured as a determined gal in comic illustrations by Kevin O’Malley, who seems to take his inspiration from woodsmen books of the 1930s as well as the graphic work of R. Crumb and his wife, Aline. In fact, the book presents such a happy pairing of writer and artist that we can now wish for stories about the sisters of John Henry, Mike Fink and Johnny Appleseed.


PAULA BUNYAN
By Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley
Unpaged. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (hardover). $16.95. (Ages 4 to 8)

AMERICAN TALL TALES
By Adrien Stoutenberg. Illustrated by Richard M. Powers
112pp. Penguin (paperback). $6.99. (Ages 7-11)

BIG MOMMA MAKES THE WORLD
By Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
48pp. Candlewick. (Ages 4-8)


This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (May 31, 2009). See my other essays on size: “Small and Tall: Books About Height” and Arrietty,” “The Borrowers,” and Smallness.

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09. January 2016 by Jerry Griswold
Categories: Genres, Pictures & Picture Books | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment