Friday, February 15, 2013

Meeting Brer Rabbit

When I was a boy, my father, who was always too busy, would sometimes refer to (but not tell) stories of Brer Rabbit. I suppose, in retrospect, he didn't remember the actual stories, just the gist. Or maybe he feared he wouldn't get the dialect right.

Even so, it awoke in me a thirst to meet this compelling creature, and find out about his mischievous deeds. I did, too, many years later--perhaps as many as thirty years, to be exact.

It happened like this: I had a gift card for a bookstore. A friend, apologizing needlessly for the "lack of thought," had sent me something I would actually use and that felt like a luxury. I used most of it to buy a hardcover edition of The Hobbit, to replace the old paperback that I had foolishly tossed out in a move. (Well, donated to the library ...)

Then, a couple of weeks later, or perhaps a month, I was back at the bookstore with my youngest son, then four years old. He liked to play with the train set they keep in the kids' section of the store. So I went back with him and started browsing the kids' books. You maybe haven't looked in a while; I hadn't. There were depressing quantities of "series" and relatively few stand-alone books. Shelves and shelves and shelves of these series, all with look-alike spines. And then in one corner, half a shelf or so, some "fairy tales."

Shelf of books
This is my shelf, but you get the idea. Can you spot Uncle Remus?

I snooped through them. Most were reproductions of classic tales. But tucked among them, small, in a yellow cover, with a reddish-orange spine, there it was:

JULIUS LESTER The Tales of Uncle Remus PUFFIN. 

I took it off the shelf. You know the feeling: a little tingle goes up your arm. The book has a bit of magic in it. It's been waiting for you. I get that sometimes at the library. Only this time, it could be mine.

The front cover:

The Adventures of Brer Rabbit


Uncle Remus (book cover)

I flipped to the introduction. The LAST thing I wanted was a bowdlerization of a set of tales I'd heard of (but never heard) my whole life. But then again, it was Puffin … A charming introduction by Augusta Baker, dated 1985, calmed my fears. I read part of a story (to the tune of my son's choo-choo). And that was that. I took it to the register and handed it to the clerk.

"Someone's getting a treat," she said, looking at my son.

"Well, we both are," I said, with a shy smile.

I took out my gift card, depleted the last penny of my balance, added a couple of bucks, and it was mine.

Postscript: I read these tales to my boys, with much pleasure, over the course of the next couple of months. I followed it up with a free iBook collection of original Joel Chandler Harris tellings. I like those old ones, yes; but Lester's renderings have a soft spot with me.

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