Children's Books

THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE, Retold and illustrated by Terri Sloat, based on a Yupik tale as told by Betty Huffman; Dutton Children's Books (a Division of Penguin, USA): New York, 1990. 30 pages oversize, hardcover. $13.95. ISBN 0-525-44623-0

Huffman and Sloat were teachers for more than a decade in Yupik villages in west Coastal Alaska. Huffman told this story -- based on a Yupik tale, and undoubtedly entertained youth and elders alike. The traditional story -- which I haven't been able to trace -- would have had a somewhat different emphasis, with a moral instructional purpose opposing personal greed and selfishness, that is absent here. This is just a funny story, with the little boy, Amik, eating more and more and larger and larger sea creatures (instead of bringing them home to his grandma). He goes home without any catch for grandma, drinking up an entire stream on the way.

He's too fat to get into the underground sod house. Grandma holds up a magic bone needle and tells him to push himself through its eye. Since it's magic he does. And the needle makes him disgorge a great flood: all the water and all the sea creatures he greedily swallowed, right on up to the gigantic whale, and a full-sized whaling ship none the worse for its sidebar Jonah- confinement. A fine feast on all the disgorged whale, fish, seaweed, crab, fish eggs, seal had by all the villagers -- except for Amik, who is no longer hungry.

The story's joke quality lies in its repetition of increasingly improbable beasts that G-L-L-U- U-U-M-P! Amik swallows. Each time he repeats that grandma would be proud of his increasingly larger catch-animals -- but each time swallows them whole. It's actually a pretty funny story to read or tell aloud.

Little will be learned about Yupik culture from the story, but then from the story about the 500 Hats of Bartolomew Cubbins you would not learn a great deal about the fur trade. (Hats were made of beaver-fur felt. Could those endless hats have caused the apparently insatiable demand?) Or theories of rulership (the king gets mad because every time Bartolomew doffs one, a new and more splendid hat appears on his head; Cubbins is magically unable to show proper deference to royalty). 500 Hats is a joke story with a bit of anti-royalist bite hidden in it.

Needle is a joke story with no bite at all in it. Whatever moral bite there once must have been in the Yupik original about greed and selfishness has been entirely suppressed in American children's book Niceness. Other than being unable to take part in his own honor feast due to a temporary lack of apptite, Amik suffers no bad consequences from his undeniable greed and absolute selfishness, presented in joke form, but ineradicably there.

Neither the non-Native teacher-storyteller nor the children's book reteller -- both Americans - - noticed that there may be some sort of ethical, moral or even environmental problems caused by persons whose uncontrollable greed and selfishness cause them to gulp down ever larger portions of the world. Greedy Amik could really signify "American expansionism," or maybe even "average American" if we were to get un-jokey about this little story. The American retellers never noticed that, of course. I cannot help wondering: was the actual Yupik originator making some kind of ironic play on the Biblical "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven"? Native storytellers often play with bits of European story, sometimes crafting a story that subtly needles the white man and leaves their native audience in stitches -- but without the original, one can't tell if that was originally true here.

--Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM