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American Tall Tales    by Mary Pope Osborne & Michael McCurdy order for
American Tall Tales
by Mary Pope Osborne
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (1991)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Award-winning author Mary Pope Osborne brings together nine folk heroes in American Tall Tales. In her Introduction, Osborne writes that a few of the tall-tale characters were real-life historical figures, such as Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed. Embellishments of the lives and deeds of such men and women are attributed to the 'storytelling of ordinary people', and the 'imagination of professional writers'.

Michael McCurdy's wood engravings and drawings add realistic impressions to the text, such as Crockett in his coonskin hat, wrestling a panther, and Davy's fictional wife, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind up against a bear and a large snake. McCurdy's representation of Johnny Appleseed shows that he was larger than ordinary folk, even when he was a young boy, and there's also Paul Bunyon's blue bull in all its glory.

The real Crockett was born in Tennessee in 1786, hunting, trapping, and clearing land to build homesteads, along with the rest of the settlers. He ran for Congress in 1827, and died at the Alamo in 1936. Part of the spun tale is that a 'comet shot out of the sky ... hit a mountain, and a baby boy tumbled off ... His name was Davy Crockett.' And about that black panther - it was big; Osborne means - really big! Davy tussled and talked to it and eventually led the 'Big Eater of the Forest back to his cabin'. He even taught it to 'sing the tenor of a church song'. Crocket was a great boaster, which got him into trouble now and then.

Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind (a name created by the author) tied a few snakes around a tree in order to free Crockett whose head got stuck in the tree crook while he was taking a nap. Sally pulled on the snake-rope and bent the right-hand fork of that tree. She told Crockett 'I'm not a little singing nightingale ... I can tote a steamboat on my back ... and jump over my own shadow.' The historical Johnny Appleseed was a pioneer named John Chapman, born in Massachusetts in the late 1700s, who planted apple orchards in the wilderness of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. This tale concludes as Johnny Appleseed announces to his brother that he's going to be a missionary. An 'apple missionary' at that, who will call out to settlers, 'Apple seeds! Take them! Sow them and harvest God's jewels!'

Osborne tells of a tidal wave 'crashing down on the shores of Cape Cod in New England'. Later on the beach, the villagers found a giant baby and named him 'Alfred Bulltop Stormalong ... Stormy for short'. Additional stories describe Mose Humphreys, a great firefighter; and Febold Feboldson, who lived on the Great Plains and showed pioneers how to set posts into the frozen winter ground. Pecos Bill was brought up by coyotes. A black steel driver named John Henry was born with 'arms as thick as stovepipes'. Songs were sung about him - 'John Henry told his friends, 'A man ain't nothing but a man. / Before I'll be beat by that big steam drill ... I'll die with my hammer in my hand'.' Last but not least is Paul Bunyan and his pet 'Babe the Blue Ox'. They made history in Onion, Minnesota with Paul's Big Onion Lumber Company, and the story that Bunyan and his Ox 'dug a few ponds to provide drinking water for everyone. Today we call those ponds the Great Lakes.'

Many of us grew up with the legends featured here, and the author presents them resourcefully. I remember well television's Davy Crockett series, starring Fess Parker, and the song - 'Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed him a bear when he was only three ... Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!' You just have to get this book - soon you and your children will be telling tall tales of your own.

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