Monday, October 23, 2017

Is there such a thing as a white American folktale? (Following folktales around the world 48. - USA)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

TL;DR: Hell yes there is.

I have heard it a lot from white Americans (even storytellers): "But... I don't have a culture! What tradition should I be drawing from?..." Not liking some stories is totally okay, but claiming they don't exist is a whole other issue. This is why I picked this wonderful collection for today's post.
(While it does contain some indigenous tales, I am planning on doing a whole separate reading challenge for indigenous nations soon). 

Cinderella in America
A book of folk and fairy tales
William Bernard McCarthy
University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

The goal of this collection is to offer a diverse selection of tales (122 to be exact) that are of European origin, but have become thoroughly and deeply American over the course of generations and centuries. They are American in their symbols, their performance, their setting, their characters, and their exceptional cultural diversity. The author accomplishes his goal with great efficiency, and includes delicious end notes, sources, and comments, making the book both enjoyable and fascinating. Chapters are divided by culture; after introducing some of the earliest collected tales, we get to read selections from Iberian, French, British, German, etc. traditions (including some rarities such as Armenian and Roma tales), as well as examples of European (or European-sounding) motifs that surface in African-American and indigenous traditions. Every chapter highlights a new slice of cultural diversity in the USA: For example, inside the Ibero-American chapter, we get sub-sections for Puerto Rican, Southwestern Hispanic, Louisiana Isleño, and New England Cape Verdean folktales. It was a treat to browse carefully selected gems from all of these sources.
Folklore map of the USA
The author states that the book focuses on American tales of European origins. If the collection was expanded to African, Asian, Native, etc. traditions, it might be a series of several volumes (and some volumes like that are already available separately). It still acknowledges the existence and richness of those other cultural sources, and manages to offer glimpses into them. It also accomplishes a very important goal: Showcasing that there are various "white American" story traditions that are rich, lively, and thoroughly representative of American culture.
If you don't believe me, read the book.


One of the prettiest stories in the book is also one of the earliest: Lady Featherflight, a version of the Magic Flight tale type, was collected in Massachusetts in the 19th century. It is especially interesting (and stunning, so close to Salem) that the fairy princess that sits in a tree is accused of being a witch by the villages that find her, and almost ends up executed - until the priest shows up, listens to her side of the story, and finds Jack, the hero that eloped with her in the first place.
One of my favorite tale types, the Basil Maiden, also made an appearance among the Puerto Rican folktales. In it, a clever girl and a young king try to out-sass each other... until the girl wins, and they get married.
My love for Cajun folktales was affirmed through such wonderful selections in the book as Golden Hair (once again, a favorite tale type of mine) and Snow Bella, the Cajun Snow White who ended up marrying the youngest dwarf brother after he repeatedly saved her from the witch's assassination attempts (instead of meandering into the tale at the end).
From the African-American traditions came the tale of Peazy and Beanzy, a "Kind and Unkind Girls" type story, which was unusual because here the unkind girl ventured forth first, and the mother loved them both, instead of being cruel to the younger one. Also from black storytellers came a short, rhyming variant of Sleeping Beauty (La Dora), in which the girl was saved and awakened by a princess. This was explained by the author as the result of a mishearing... but it did not seem to bother the original teller.
From the Polish tradition came the tale of the Black Kitty, in which the hero had to cuddle and pet a black kitten (princess) while all kinds of horrors and illusions tried to get him to give her up. From Scandinavian sources came the legend of the Powder Snake, a giant reptile that spat venomous powder at everyone until a poor boy managed to kill it. The Armenian story tradition was represented by two variants (mother's and daughter's) of the same tale of the Two Dreams, in which a man followed his dream to find the love of his life - and then rescue her by trickery from her tyrannical husband.
Of course the Appalachian tale tradition was also fairly represented in the book. My favorites were Rawhead and Bloodybones, and other kind-unkind type tale, in which a girl had to clean and bleach talking, bloody skull drawn from a well - and White Bear Whittington, which, if my personal opinion was asked, I would nominate as the most beautiful American fairy tale I know.


I am not going to list all the connections, since by definition all tales in the book have their European counterparts. I simply want to highlight some less common examples: The book contained variants of Molly Whoopie (Polly, Nancy, and Muncimeg), Grimm's Crystal Ball (The enchanted sisters), the Irish's favorite Fairy Midwife (The fairy birth), The Princess in the Shroud (The Bewitched Princess), and Mistress Cockroach (Mousie Perez).
Due to the great cultural diversity, of course, the book's pages were teeming with tricksters. Hermana Zorra outfoxed Coyote with the help of a tar baby; Quevedo (Spanish author turned trickser) switched places with a shepherd who got punished instead of him; Lapin drank Bouqui's wine and claimed he'd beet at a baptism; Br'er Rabbit did the same with Fox, Wolf, and Bear, and then fell for the tar baby too; Hodja Nasreddin taught and learned important lessons; Coyote was defeated by Little Pig, and then a cannibal baby; and Tyl Eileschpijjel shared his crops with the devil, coming out the winner every time. And Jack... Jack was, of course, everywhere.

Where to next?
Saying goodbye to the Americas with Canada!


  1. Sounds like a wonderful book! I have a fondness for American folklore of all kinds, European, Native American and African American. I wonder if there are any copies available in my local bookstore, even if they gave to order it? Must ask.

  2. I've always loved fairy tales, and as a writer, I love them even more. Thanks for this; I think I'm going to order this book!