Children's Books

THE ROUGH-FACE GIRL, By Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon; G.P. Putrnam's Sons, 200 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10016-9204. (800) 847-5515. 1992 oversize hardcover, 32 pages, illustrated, $14.95 US, $19.50 Can. 0-399-21859-9

This story originally was a Mi'kmaq storyteller's adaptation -- sometime in the mid-=19th century -- of the European Cinderella. A young girl is tortured by two elder sisters, to the indifference of townsfolk and her widowed father (there are no ste-prelatives in this story). At the dge of town lives an Invisible Being, who will marry whatever girl can truly see him. All the girls -- including the elder sisters -- try, but fail the tests put to them by the Invisible Being's sister -- namely to describe bits of his gear. They try commonplace guesses as to the composition of his bow-string, sled harness, etc. The victim-girl dresses herself in an improvised odd homemade costume imitating old-time clothing as best she can with birch bark, refuses to obey her sisters who try to stop her and is not daunted by jeers and hoots of the villagers. She passes the test by seeing that the Invisible Being's bowstring is the rainbow and sled runners are the Milky Way. She is cured of her horrible burns, marries the Invisible Being and lives happily ever after.

This children's picture book was adapted from a mid-19th-century Canadian Mi'kmaq storyteller's re-working of a French-Canadian Cinderella. Though Martin does not cite his source, it is clearly Charles Leland's Algonquian Legends of New England; or Myths and Folklore of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes, 1884, reprinted by Dover in 1992, and by several publishers in Canada and England. Contrary to the original title, all the Mi'lmaq materials were collected in Canada, not New England, by Rev. S.T. Rand, a Baptist missionary to the Mi'kmaq there. In a prefatory note, Martin says the story "in its original form is part of a longer and mor complex traditional story.". This is not correct. Martin misunderstood some of Leland's long, complex footnotes. Leland had a hobby-horse: that the legends he was collecting in the late 19th century formed a complex which not only was like the Norse Eddas but (by way of contacts through the Inuit) was derived from them. Although he collected many Indian French-inspired European tales, he included this Native Cinderella retelling only because its rainbow and Milky Way elements seemed in line with his indefensible theory of Norse origin for the entire mythology.

The story (you can see the original Mi'kmaq story) is given a romantic interpretation. Martin fills in various blanks the 19th century storyteller left deliberately. He places the story long ago and far away, although the storyteller deliberately did not use the conventional Mi'kmaq story-starting formula ("N'karnayoo, Of old time") for this, and probably was referring ironically to the present situation of the Mi'kmaq people in some then-contemporary IndianTown. For example, although all the town girls idly try to snag the Invisible One, no one knows what he looks like, he isn't rich, and he is not powerful in any way the townsfolk recognize. Th original story does not mention any rumored handsomeness; indeed what's most odd about the story is the village girls' repeated attempts to snag this remote and uninvolved being. The snagging attempts are just a fad, just something to do.

Martin cleans up the story, which in the original, has the older sister deliberately torture the youngest, with intentional burnings -- which all the villagers know about and don't interfere to prevent. (In Martin's version, they just make her tend the fire; sparks snapping out from it do the burning.) Neither does the girl's father, who's put off with a transparent lie that she keeps falling into the fire. The girl's name -- Oochigeashw -- is given her by the indifferent, hostile townsfolk in mockery of her burns. The girl in the original story is small for her age, weak, and sickly. She is a family child abuse victim. No supernatural help -- no rich Fairy Godmother supplying clothing and coach and horses to attract the Prince -- only her own efforts can change her situation.

Martin -- and especially illustrator Shannon -- makes the girls' father a sympathetic nice impoverished old guy, and deletes the Mi'kmaq storyteller's implications that the burnt girl turned to him for help, in vain. In the original, the father gives the older girls wampum beads (therefore he's obviously rich, returning from a trade trip) after the unsuccessful snag -- either for a second try or a consolation prize. He offers nothing to the youngest, not even the broken beads Martin has him give the youngest. She takes and tries to fix his worn-out mocassins without asking, she is not given them, as Martin has it. The original storyteller callers her a "lying little pest" when she begs for some wampum, strongly suggesting she has tried to tell of her plight and been ignored.

In the original, the girl makes what the storytller describes as a costume "of the old days" of birch bark. "Of the old days" just refers to the garments, not that birch bark ever was used for this purpose. Contrary to Martin, the bark is not said to be stripped from dead trees (which would be impossible) but even fresh-stripped bark it will still result in something like a tunic and leggins made of cardboard boxes. The storyteller's mention of incising designs on it is probably a reference to the one-time practice of recording pictorial mnemonics for sacred songs and stories on birchbark scrolls, not to decorations. When, oddly costumed and starting on her way, she is jeered at by the townsfolk, the original stoyteller stresses her resolution, but unlike Martin does not say she has faith in herself, instead "it may be some spirit inspired her." Unlike the Cinderella story, there is no question of impressing or charming the Invisible One. The necessity is to pass his guardian-sister's test by proving the girl can really see him. Since everyone has always failed this test, there is no reason for the victimized girl to believe she will do any better at it.

Martin -- and especially Shannon, artistically -- impose a certain interpretation, as the girl is on her way to the Invisible Being's lodge at the end of th village. "She alone, of all in that village, saw in [the beauties of nature] the sweet yet awesome face of the Invisible Being."

Martin minimizes the girl's awe, reverence -- and fear -- when she actually sees the rainbow and stars that are parts of the Invisible One's gear. These are symbols of death. The "spirit road of stars,", the Milky Way, is a road travelled by the spirits of the dead, and is perhaps best translated Ghost Road. The guardian sister makes medicine to remove the girl's burn scars, Martin has her merely wash them away in the lake.

Martin gives the story a much more romantic ending than the storyteller, having the Invisible One remark on how beautiful the girl is, saying he'd seen so from the start, i.e. her inner beauty. Actually (in the original) the Invisible One is never really very enthusiastic. When he finds the girl in the wife's seat. "So, we're found out!" he tells his sister. " 'Yes.'...and so they were wed.". That's it. Since the Invisible One's supernatural symbols (rainbow and Milky Way) are symbols of death, the whole (original) story doesn't really look that much like Cinderella snagging the Prince and living happily ever after. The victimized little girl may be escaping her miserable life into death. The happy-ever-after convention is enforced artistically on the last book page, with the Invisible One now shows as a conventional warrior, paddling the girl off into the sunset.

Artistically, David Shannon's pictures -- several of them full-bleed 2-page spreads -- are very fine. One two-page spread bears a major shoare of the romantic interpretation of this story: that the burnt girl (unlike the dysfunctional townsfolk) sees the beauty and power of nature (which constitutes the Invisible One). Others characterize the haughtiness of the two elder sisters, the madness of the birch-bark attire the little girl makes for herself.

The puzzling features that give the original story its eerie power -- unmotivated family malice, general village hostility to the girl, the mystery of the Invisible One -- all suggest a storyteller who created a parable about the old ways of life -- 250 years in the past for the Mi'kmaq people at the 1870 time of this telling -- in conflict with the form of life in a dysfunctional IndianTown of the mid-19th century, rather than a romantic tale. But the romantic interpretation is insistently forced both by Martin and by the artist, Shannon. The book is quite beautiful, and as a pseudo_Indian tale, is preferable to the other modern children's book based on the same 19th-century Mi'kmaq tale.

It is inexcusable for Martin to identify this as "an Algonquian Indian Cinderella". Their source clearly specifies the tribe: Mi'kmaq, gives the name of the collector (Rev. S.T. Rand, a Ba[ptist Missionary to the Micmacs of Hantsport, NovaScotia), though not of the teller. There is no Algonquian tribe, and never was. This is a pejorative name (meaning "bark eater") given by the Mohawks to various of their enemies. With that great facility for getting the most important things dead wronbg, anthros picked it to characterize an entire large, widespread and still today quite lively languag group. Today the Mi'kmaq tribe is very much alive in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Reviewed by Paula Giese

File: ch57

Purchase this book now from
Your book purchases support this web site.


Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, June 30, 1996 - 3:37:41 AM