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Grandmothers' Stories: Wise Woman Tales from Many Cultures Review by Tammy WalkerRetold by Burleigh Muten; illustrated by Sian Bailey
Read by Olympia Dukakis
2067 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140
I am always interested in learning about other cultures. Though most cultures share in the basic human emotions of love, sadness, disappointment, success, etc., there are often great chasms in individuals' worldviews and explanations of the mundane and the spiritual. Barefoot Books celebrates the various cultures and worldviews, finding beauty in the differences. Burleigh Muten found that most tales portrayed the old woman figure "as either foolish and muddle-headed or cunning and full of evil intent." She wanted her compilation to portray a contrast to this stereotype as she examined old women in various cultures.
In "The Midwife and the Djinn," a fantastical Senegalese tale, the old woman is clever and resourceful as she helps a powerful leader and his wife to deliver their sextuplets. Once an invaluable assistant to all birthing mothers in her village, Fatu can now live a life of luxury after assisting with the birth of the sextuplets and receiving many gifts from the wealthy couple. Yet, she continues in her service to her village and even uses the money to throw feasts for the children every Sunday.
"The Old Woman Who Was Not Afraid" tells of a poor old Japanese woman who makes very tasty dumplings. After making a humble portion for herself one day, one rolls away and is stolen by the Oni, little hairy creatures with horns who live in the woods. She chases her precious dumplings and is taken captive by the Oni so that they might always have her wonderful dumplings. She finally cleverly outwits them and steals their magic pot, which is able to turn one grain of rice into a pot full. She now always has plenty to eat.
Another mystical tale comes from the Russian culture: "Grandmother's Basket." In this story, a resourceful and wise grandmother helps her grandchildren escape the evil plot of their stepmother. Grandmother's basket proves to be a useful resource when the children successfully escape stepmother's "granny," the woodwitch.
"The Woman in the Moon" is a Hawaiian tale of a hardworking old woman who just wants to rest. She and her husband argue about her perceived laziness as he often finds her sleeping. After a powerful dream about resting in the moon, the old lady quietly leaves her husband one evening to take that long rest. He tries to stop her, but the moon triumphantly pulls her to safety and to her final, peaceful sleep.
"The Beautiful Crone of Cordoba" is a Mexican fairy tale of a beautiful old crone known for her magic. Though most in her village, at one time or another, benefited from her magic, policeman finally arrest her and throw her in jail. Though her beauty is bewitching and nearly changes the judge's mind, it is her wit and magic that ultimately set her free.
"Go Ask the Wise Woman" is a strange Irish tale about the trouble that can come when one leaves "feet water" on the floor after soaking one's feet. After a very hard day of work, a woman and her daughter go to bed, forgetting to clean up after their soak. Because of this oversight, the feetwater spirits invade their home and take over, making all kinds of mischief. Fortunately, the old wise woman who lives nearby has some helpful advice. The daughter takes care of the feetwater spirits, mops the floor, and the two never make the same mistake again.
"Old Mother Holle" is a German story of an old woman who has two daughters, one her own flesh and the other a stepchild. Favoring her own daughter, the stepmother makes her stepdaughter do much work while her real daughter lives a life of ease. After a magical experience in a waterfall, the daughters' real characters are seen. The mother realizes she has only harmed her own daughter by coddling her.
"The Old Woman Who Was Right" is a Swedish tale of an argument an old woman and man have about whose jobs around the house are more difficult. After receiving daily insults from her husband, the woman suggests they switch jobs for the day so he can see how "easy" her work really is. By the end of the day, after he has failed miserably, the old man acquiesces that his wife does work very hard and that his work is relatively easy.
These are clever, well-written tales with attractive artwork throughout. Olympia Dukakis's voice lends a grandmotherly-ness to the tales, which is quite enjoyable. These stories provide a journey into the mystical and fantastical and a peek into the mindset of the various cultures portrayed. Though the tales are artfully told, I would use them sparingly in my own homeschool. I enjoy fables and fairy tales and use them often, but these tales tend to celebrate the mystical a bit more than I am comfortable with. These "wise" women help people in magical ways or obtain magical powers, and it is not always for the purpose of exposing evil, an element which makes Grimm's Fairy Tales or the Narnia series eternally meaningful. As with any fantastical literature, one must use caution and discernment.
Product review by Tammy Walker, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, April 2008