I suppose there are places in the country where the crocuses are pushing up their cheery little heads and children are playing in fresh grass. Not here. The temperatures have been arctic and we’re battening down for yet another blizzard. The combination of the weather and the wonderful Inuit throat singers I just listened to, prompted me to think of arctic folktales, of which not enough are published. Here are some that I enjoy:
University of Minnesota Press has just re-released Children of the Northlights by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. I love this book so much that I plunked down some serious cash for a first edition several years ago. It’s nice to see the new, quality edition. This is not a folktale, but rather an introduction to and celebration of Sami culture in northern Scandinavia told through the eyes of two children, Lise and Lasse. The illustrations are spectacular and draw you in as you follow the two children as they play pranks on their family, chase reindeer, play with their dogs, ski, take saunas, and stay warm while a snowstorm rages. Yes , life in the arctic is romanticized, but I love it all the same.
The Polar Bear Son by Lydia Dabcovich is also for younger students. It’s a sweet and heartwarming story about an old Inuit woman who adopts an orphan polar bear cub. As it grows up, it provides food for her with such success that the men of the village grow jealous. When the old woman learns that the men plot to kill the bear, she quickly sends it away. But she keeps going out onto the ice to meet with the bear, offering him steadfast love and he, in return, continues to provide her with food. The muted art captures the feeling of the stark, cold landscape beautifully. An added bonus are the author’s excellent notes about how she did her research.
The Seal Oil Lamp by Dale De Armond is the story of a boy named Allugua, who is blind. Because he will not be able to take care of himself as he grows up, Eskimo law decrees that he must die. When the time comes for the villagers to go to their annual fishing camp, Allugua’s parents must leave the boy behind to die of cold and hunger. All alone with his songs, his games, and his own thoughts, Allugua prepares to die. But then a little mouse creeps into his house and events take a magical turn. I love this tale for the warmth, the lovely rhythmic language, and the way it does not shy away from the harsh realities of life in the arctic, yet provides a heartwarming ending.
Ka-Ha-Si and the Loon by Terri Cohlene is about a boy who sleeps all day long curled up next to the fire. The villagers think him the laziest boy that ever lived, but his mother has faith in him. One night a loon visits with a message from his dead grandfather and takes him to a strange place where he eats bitter berries and bathes in the frigid water. So begins Ka-Ha-Si’s adventure and time of training. Nobody knows anything is different until trouble strikes the village. Then he is the only one able to help. In the end he saves his village three times and gets to meet with his grandfather on his final adventure with the loon. It’s a great introduction to arctic lore and the author’s note is very helpful and interesting.
Song of Sedna by Robert San Souci and illustrated by Daniel San Souci is better suited to slightly older readers. It’s an adaptation of an Inuit legend and even though some of the scarier elements have been eliminated in this retelling, it is still a pretty scary story. A beautiful maiden named Sedna is married to a mysterious, handsome hunter. When she discovers that he is actually a demon, she manages to escape and becomes an immortal sea goddess. In her new identity she helps hunters and fishermen. The illustrations are spectacular and tell much of the story through the deep expressions on the faces. All of the above are adaptations that make the stories quite accessible to western children.
For a truly authentic look The Dancing Fox, Arctic Folktales by John Bierhorst is a good place to start. The 18 tales gathered here are haunting and sometimes quite strange, filled with magic, dangerous journeys, fierce giants, and also some humor. In addition to the stories, Bierhorst has written an excellent introduction that discusses the land, the people, and the traditions that shape the American Arctic as well as how the Inuit live today. For 4-6 graders, this book would be an outstanding introduction to life in the arctic. It’s important to note, however, that these stories are quite unembellished and might disturb students who are raised on traditional European tales with their happy and rather tidy endings. They really suit my mood today, however!
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