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tales from silver lands

10 december 2013

Tales from Silver Lands is not exactly unreadable, but the years have not been good to the 1925 Newbery Medalist, and I won't have much to say about its content here.

Charles J. Finger's book collects stories from South and Central America: mostly folktales, with the occasional more contemporary yarn in the mix. They are told in a serviceable modern prose, nothing ornate about them, and they're offered without too much editorializing. The narrator, aligned with the author, is clearly an Anglo traveler in these "silver lands," but we never get to know too much about him. He keeps a distance from his material that, again, I'd call modernist; it's not patronizing, it's not colonizing. It's not interesting, either, but you won't cringe if you try to work your way through these stories; they participate well in the earnest multiculturalism that Newbery juries used to reward so frequently.

I learned a few stray things about Charles J. Finger while trying to figure out what this book was about (the Scholastic "Apple" imprint paperback I got at a used-book store was extremely reticent in terms of background material). Finger was an Englishman who moved to Arkansas after extensive travel. He lived there for many years and was one of the leading cultural figures in Fayetteville in the 1920s and 30s. (You can read about him in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, which has a lot more biographical information than Wikipedia.) Finger was apparently such a big deal in Arkansas that some alert Congressman got a Liberty Ship named in his memory. He was a pal of Carl Sandburg (Tales from Silver Lands is dedicated to the poet).

This is all good to know, because again, my Apple edition was not helpful. In fact, it confused me greatly by featuring one of the weirdest cover illustrations in the history of children's publishing. In this picture, four American kids look sullenly at a guy in a massive chair which has somehow been airlifted into the middle of a native village. The guy is holding a manila folder and seems to be lecturing to them; they're not buying it. The guy is blond, hunky, and dressed in a Godawful striped golf shirt. I guess we're supposed to understand that this is a church tour of Latin America during which a youth minister carries around an inappropriate chair … no, that can't be it. I think this is supposed to be the sullen kids' junior-high teacher, whose magical rendition of Charles J. Finger's narratives has transported them in their imagination to mystical regions south of the border. Or some of them. That blonde girl is looking at him with a hatred that must conceal some backstory I'd rather not learn.

Finger, Charles J. Tales from Silver Lands. Woodcuts by Paul Honoré. 1924. New York: Scholastic, n.d.