Day 706: The Devil’s Backbone

Cover for The Devil's BackboneThe Devil’s Backbone is a western adventure tale related in an unsophisticated vernacular style in both first person and third person. It is an unusual novel but reminds me most of, perhaps, True Grit or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The third person narrator is barely there but relates the first person story his father told him. The book is illustrated by Jack Unruh.

Papa, as the third-person narrator calls him, is a young boy growing up in the Texas Hill Country when his father Karl kills a horse after a dispute about it with his wife Amanda. Amanda saddles up her horse Precious with the concho-decorated saddle her father gave her and leaves. After Karl has gone off for a few days and returned, a neighbor, Miz Choat, arrives to tell Karl that she has promised Amanda to send the boys to school, so she takes Papa and his older brother Herman back with her. But after Herman has attended school awhile, he takes off.

Papa enjoys his time with the Choats, but after a few months his father arrives to take him back. At home he has installed another woman, Miss Gusa, who is pregnant.

Papa has clearly been brought home as a cheap source of labor. Eventually, Karl’s brutality makes Papa decide to leave and look for his Mama. On his journey he encounters outlaws, a dying Indian, a prematurely born baby, a family of Mexican migrant workers, and several loyal friends, including the cowboy Calley Pearsall.

I enjoyed this tale. At first, I thought it might become a series of tall tales, but nothing happens in it that seems wildly exaggerated. However, it does have the flavor of a folk tale. The only thing I found a little irritating was the double narration. We learn nothing at all about the narrator, so I don’t really see the purpose of that approach, which leads occasionally to such confusing constructions as “I said, Papa said.”

Although this novel may sound like children’s fiction, I don’t think I would recommend it for younger children because of some of the events. Older children would probably like it, as it has lots of adventure. Some of the subject matter may be inappropriate, however, as there are events such as murders and death in childbirth, so use your discretion. This book was a choice of my book club, all adults, and we all enjoyed it.

I have been on the Devil’s Backbone (pictured on the cover). These days it is a narrow two-lane highway across a ridge with spectacular views on each side. I heard it had been widened, but to think it was once so narrow is amazing.

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Day 408: Folktales of the Native American

Cover for Folktales of the Native AmericanI have read some of the folk tales of the Celtic peoples (mostly Irish and Welsh) and the Norse and Russians as well as the more recent ones of the Grimm brothers. Last year, I reviewed Robert Graves’ book about Greek myths. Except for the really amusing and cynical fairy tales of Charles Perrault, I find them almost uniformly violent–full of murders, rapine, and theft. (Of course, kids love that kind of stuff.)

What strikes me about the Native American tales assembled and retold by Dee Brown is that even though some are about battles, they do not focus on the gruesome, as European tales are prone to do. More of them are about how things were created or how some animals got their markings, or they are comic tales about trickery and deceit. The stories seem to be more similar to the few African ones I have read than to European myths.

The tales are simply told, most of them no more than two or three pages long. I think in general folk tales suffer from not being told aloud. In print they lack the tale teller’s expression and gestures.