Stories for children:
When we consider nice cheerful children’s stories, we may be able to see a pattern.  Let me point out from the beginning that I have no facts I wish you to remember here, have no desire to evoke your passionate commitment and have no hope that you will respond by beginning to think about a plan.  I have done those things with the main topic.  Right now I only wish to point out that these are tales that people get passionate about and maybe why.  If you find yourself getting passionate about this, feel free to skip to the end of the article.  You will have picked up what I want you to realize. 

Of course if you have read this far, weathering the doubts, the panic, the despair, the twisted sarcasms of fate and the hysterical hope I have put you through so far and done it all with tranquility only to become furious right now, that will be no surprise.  At last we are dealing with issues that are human size. 

Not all children’s stories are cheerful; in fact there appear to be dark elements everywhere one turns.  It appears to matter not whether the setting is urban or rural.    The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800’s include “Hansel and Gretel,” with the interest taking place in a rural setting and “Cinderella,” where the interest moves to the royal palace.   Stories written by Hans Christian Andersen later that century include the dark tales “The Little Match Girl,” which happens in town, and the “Ugly Duckling” which starts out bad enough and happens on a farm.  I see no useful pattern so far.

There is a different tradition of children’s stories, and we will begin with Aesop’s Fables.  Aesop is said to have been a slave in Greece in the sixth century BC, and to have composed a set of tales we still know and love.  The tales are often about animals, generally put in a rural setting and feature examples of cunning, folly and mind games.  There is a subtle sense that the animals exist in a moral universe. 

Fast forward to the 19th century and one finds similar elements in the work collected by Joel Chandler Harris.  The stories feature animals.  There is cunning and folly.  There is the abiding sense of moral order.  And the narrator is again a slave, who we are told to believe is fictional.  But we are also told he is recounting authentic traditional African folklore.  That would mean he was not a historic person but a collection of people.  Remus, the purported narrator of the tales is more sophisticated than Aesop.  I have heard it suggested that the difference between a story and novel is that the protagonist of a novel undergoes growth during the events.  That seems never to happen in Aesop but does in Remus. 

The tales of Remus are now under a cloud.  One does not have to look far for a reason.  Remus, whether he was a man or an avatar of several people, was of African background, and more contemporary Africans were not charmed.  Well that is fair.  It is only good manners to refer to people with names they accept and portray them in the fashion they like, particularly in their own country. 

But there is more to it than that.  I was chatting with a fellow medical student once and discovered that he hated Joel Chandler Harris.  Always eager to understand people, I pursued the issue with him but to no avail.  He was so upset that he was irrational.  His remarks made no sense and followed no logic.  The more I pursued the logical thread, the worse things got, the more upset he became and the harder it got to get any sense out of him at all.  Had I been smarter, I would have dropped the question of why he had his opinion and pursued the question of why he was so passionate.  But I find that rather difficult.  It strikes me as offensive to depart the subject and pursue the emotion behind the subject as I am doing now albeit with good reason. 

Just because one is passionate does not mean one is wrong.  Children should ride in car seats.  I accept that.  I think the law is right on that one.  But I put no particular emotional force behind it.  If I had suffered the experience of a tragedy affecting some friend for lack of a car seat, I might be quite passionate, but my opinion would have been the same. 

That emotional intensity is the first sniff of a pattern. 

The degree to which the work collected by Harris may have had stimulus from Africa, Greece or the Cherokee is not our current concern. 

A very few years after Harris started publishing his collections Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn.  The book is not concerned with animals that speak like humans, but has some of the same elements as the other stories.  It is aimed at children.  There is cunning and folly.  There is the rural setting.  There is the sense of moral order.  The sense of moral order is so strong that Twain made light of it by inserting a notice at the beginning of the book in which he offered to shoot anybody looking for a moral.  Again the book is under a cloud.  There is a character named Jim who is portrayed with great sympathy by Twain but whose portrait has offended enough people so that it has been banned from libraries in public schools.  Jim is African American.  I cannot assert that the decision to eliminate it was accompanied by more than rational interest.  It might have been just good manners.  I cannot say whether a proper survey was done among African Americans to be sure that is what they wanted.   

The tradition continues with Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson.  Again a similar zoo of intelligent animals is found dealing human size problems in a rural setting.  Material in the book was deemed offensive.  When the family moved into the house beside the hill, they were accompanied by their cook, who moved in with them.  Her name was Sulphronia, and she was kind and competent.  Offense was laid to the fact that she was a stereotype of an African.  But everybody else in the story was a stereotype.   What I find actually more troubling is that she moved with her job.  She was more than an employee.  She was family.  That might have been brushed aside, but there is a sympathetic depiction of Father Rabbit, and he is a Southerner.  There is a whiff of the sins of the ancient South, and I have no problem with African Americans taking offense.  But it went beyond merely boycotting the book or not letting taxpayers’ money be spent on it.  Sulphronia was eliminated from later printings of the story.  That amounts to censorship.  Aha.  Pattern.  Excess intensity went into stamping her out. 

The tradition was carried on by the story Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  The intelligent rural animals dealing with their own problems in a rural setting are so similar that there is even an event foreshadowed in Rabbit Hill that happens in Watership Down.  A hose is attached to an exhaust pipe and put down a rabbit burrow.  Watership Down is so sophisticated that there is poetry and a cycle of traditional tales among the rabbits one encounters.  The story so far as I know has not made enemies.    

I suggest two points: 1) People really love stories about farms and countryside life.  2) People are prepared to become furious and turn against stories about farms and countryside life. 

I believe that people love those stories because there are very few who, if they could trace their ancestry back four or five generations, would not find fresh air and hard work on a farm in their background.  Cities have to recruit from the farms.  And those farm families generally had a lot of children.  That is an enormous emotional draw, since babies just about have nothing but being adorable to support themselves with.  So when people are in a sentimental mood they are drawn to the time in their own backgrounds when there were plenty of babies. 

The other side of the coin is easy.  People are ready to be bitter about such stories because they are homesick and see no end to it. 

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