Monday, July 19, 2010

How Turtle's Back was Cracked - Native American Literature

Ross, Gayle. 1995. How turtle’s back was cracked: a traditional Cherokee tale. Paintings by Murv Jacob. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-8037-1728-8

Plot Summary
This is a traditional Cherokee tale of how Turtle’s back came to look cracked. In the time when animals still spoke the same language, Turtle took credit for killing a wolf. Considering himself a mighty hunter, he took a tribute from the wolf and flaunted his victory around town. The other wolves didn’t take kindly to Turtle’s arrogance and plotted to kill him. As in many traditional tales, the “lesser” animal, Turtle, was able to out-smart his adversaries but unfortunately at some expense to himself. Though Turtle was able to doctor himself, his back was forever cracked. At the end of the story, the author also includes some history about the Cherokee nation.

Critical Analysis
This is a well-written, fun book that not only tells a traditional Cherokee tale but also gives a little insight into the culture of the Cherokee people. The author tells the reader that she has taken a few liberties with the story but not enough to actually harm the authenticity of the story. She backs up her authenticity and respect for the story with a brief history of the Cherokee people at the end of the book. What is wonderful though is how much the reader can learn about the Cherokee from the story alone.

Similar to African tales and other traditional animal stories, we learn that this story takes place “in the time when animals spoke the same language” thus letting the reader know that it happened a long time ago. It also takes a similar theme of showing readers (or listeners as the stories were originally told orally) that brains can usually out maneuver brawn since Possum beats the first wolf at his own game and later Turtle must out-smart the wolves to save his life. Beyond these cultural traits though, the story tells us a few more customs. First, we learn that these people probably ate persimmons or at least lived in a land where persimmons grew. More insightfully though, the book teaches us that it is customary for a hunter to take a tribute from his prey. This tribute captures the spirit of the prey and transfers it to the hunter. We also learn that it is a custom of the people to keep a corn soup cooking or warming all day so that if a visitor should come, there will be food to offer him upon his arrival. In the end, we also learn that the Cherokee had secrets for using plants as healing agents and the author even threw in a Cherokee word to learn.

After the story, the author provides a brief history of the Cherokee nation which, if you read the information about the author on the book jacket, was told to her by family members as stories of their life, not as facts to be cited. That must be why the story itself taught me so much about the Cherokee people before reading the history the author provided at the end.

Professional Reviews
From Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, January 15, 1995 (Vol. 91, No. 10))
Gathering persimmons together, friends Possum and Turtle are joined by a thieving wolf who chokes to death on their fruit. Turtle, foolishly believing that he has killed the wolf, shows off the deed by making wolf-ear spoons and eating with them publicly. When the other wolves catch Turtle, they vow to kill him by roasting, boiling, or drowning him. He responds with, "Oh, no, not the river! Anything but the river." When they throw him in, he lands upside down on a rock, cracking his shell. He survives, but that's why the Turtle has cracks on his back today. Despite its echoes of the more familiar Brer Rabbit story ("born and bred in the briar patch"), this Cherokee pourquoi tale has a flavor all its own. Ross notes that she remembers the tale from her childhood, found a written source, and developed it through storytelling to its present form. Jacob's distinctive acrylic paintings illustrate the story's dramatic moments in scenes rich in colors and patterns. An entertaining picture book to read aloud. Category: For the Young. 1995, Dial, $14.99 and $14.89. Ages 5-8.

From Gisela Jernigan, Ph.D. (Children's Literature)
Turtle and possum are best friends because they are both slow and both love persimmons. When wolf tries to steal persimmons from turtle, that's when trouble starts. Turtle eventually manages to escape from the wolves using a trick similar to the one employed by Brer Rabbit, but in the process his smooth shell becomes cracked. Sprightly dialogue and touches of humor make the story fun to read aloud, while colorful watercolors and geometric borders add to the visual appeal of this pourquoi tale. Includes an author's note. 1995, Dial, $14.99, $14.89. Ages 3 to 9.

From CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 1995)
A Cherokee legend from "the days when the people and the animals still spoke the same language" begins when Possum and Turtle search for persimmons. When a wolf spoils their feast, Possum retaliates, but it's vain Turtle who claims the credit. Turtle not only makes a pair of wolf-ear spoons, but then he shows off this "tribute," prevailing upon friends and even on strangers to respond with hospitality. After Turtle gorges himself on corn soup, the insulted wolves serve him a come-uppance for such bad behavior. This porquois tale is beautifully illustrated with Jacobs' detailed, intricately patterned artwork done in acrylics that suggest a dark forest full of an active community of talking creatures. Ross is an accomplished storyteller and a descendent of the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation during the time of the Trail of Tears. Her endnotes briefly summarize the history of that Indian Removal (1838-39) and also point out accomplishments of the Cherokee Nation. CCBC categories: FOLKLORE, MYTHOLOGY AND TRADITIONAL LITERATURE; PICTURE BOOKS; HISTORICAL PEOPLE, PLACES AND EVENTS. 1995, Dial, 32 pages, $14.89. Ages 6-9.

This book can be used in a unit on Porquois stories. It could also be used in a study of Native American history or specifically the Trail of Tears from the background information provided after the story. It could also be used in a study of animal adaptations.

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