Friday, September 11, 2015

The Talking Cat and other stories of French Canada by Natalie Savage Carlson, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin

I don't really feel too many pangs when I have to weed beloved books. I feel some regret when I find something that I love but the kids are obviously just not into, but I don't feel a sentimental desperation to keep it in the library. Yes, I am a slash-and-burn weeder.

However, some things I will take home to love. This collection of folktales is one that I was introduced to through Clifton Fadiman's anthology, I think. It was there that I first read and loved the stories "The Skunk in Tante Odette's Oven" and "The Talking Cat". This book contains seven funny, quirky stories, all of them featuring a broad cast of characters from an imaginary rural Canadian village.

Carlson's introduction explains the magic of storytelling and how she learned these stories from her mother, who learned them from her great-uncle.

The first story, my favorite, introduces us to Tante Odette, a stingy and lonely woman who wakes up to an unusual problem one morning. Yep, there is a skunk in her oven. Tante Odette repeats her troubles in a rhythmic, sing-song recital until she has a large crowd gathered to help her deal with this tragedy. But none of the suggestions find favor with Tante Odette. Finally, Rene Ecrette, "the simple son of Francois, came slap, slapping his feet down the road" and it is simple Rene who solves the problem of the skunk, with a little understanding of animal - and human - nature.

"The Talking Cat" features Tante Odette and her stingy ways and how a clever farmhand gets the best of her - but teaches her there's more to life than saving and scrimping. As the moral says "If you must follow the advice of a talking cat, be sure you know who is doing the talking for him."

"Jean Labadie's big black dog" is a funny story about the power of imagination - and how it can backfire! "The Speckled Hen's Egg" is a little like the old folktale about not counting your chickens before they hatch, featuring a woman who starts to imagine she is royalty and wealthy - all from a hen's egg! "The Canoe in the Rapids" is a whole story all around that gag you see in cartoons - where a character thinks he's talking to a friend and it's really a bear. I guess this wasn't just a new joke for cartoons! When a fish story goes wrong, Albe meets "The Ghostly Fishermen" and gets more than he bargained for when he tries to prove his story true. The final story, "The Loup-Garou in the woods" shows how differently a story can be, depending on who tells it - and who was there!

Roger Duvoisin's black and white illustrations, scattered throughout the book, capture another time and place with a group of sturdy, odd, funny people going about their days and getting into wacky troubles. I especially love the pictures of Tante Odette's worrisome adventure with the skunk.

Verdict: I love these stories. They're part of my childhood memories and I love the folktale trickster, wise fools feeling of them but with the very different setting and characters than most stories. Did I suffer any pangs weeding this? Not really. Their time is past. There are only a couple mentions of the Native populations and none are particularly accurate or inclusive. The genre of stories about adults has long passed away and kids now read books predominantly about kids. Even Duvoisin is no longer a well-known illustrator and the age of story collections is past as well. I'll be happy to keep this in my personal collection, but it no longer has a place in the library.

Published by Harper & Brothers (Weekly Reader Children's Book Club) 1952; Weeded from the library

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