Transplanted in Appalachia: Illustrated Folktales by Barry Moser

By Tina L. Hanlon, Ph. D.
Ferrum College

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference
Abingdon, Virginia, March 20, 1999

After illustrating dozens of classic stories for adults and children, artist Barry Moser decided to adapt the story “The Tinderbox” himself, as well as illustrating and designing the book. In the Afterword to that book, he wrote,

As an American illustrator, I am dismayed that tales of wonder and magic are set in foreign lands and distant times, usually medieval England or Czechoslovakia, where the mountains are dominated by fantastic castles and where the heroes and heroines are princes and princesses costumed in hennins and barrel breeches. It is as if magic and wonder happen only far away, and a very long time ago. . . . There are no castles in the America I know, no princes or princesses. But there are mountains—the Cumberlands, the Blue Ridge, the Berkshires. There are heroes and heroines. And there are myths. So I ask myself, why should I, an American, not use an American idiom to frame my adaptation of this story? (1990, p. 32)

Thus it was a strong sense of place that motivated Moser to retell the three stories that he adapted to Appalachian settings in the 1990s, recreating places and personalities that he was familiar with while growing up in Tennessee. After The Tinderbox (1990), a literary fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Andersen, Moser adapted Polly Vaughn (1992), a story from an old British ballad, and Tucker Pfeffercorn (1994), based on the European fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” While fairy tales and ballads are inherently nonrealistic, realistic details from Appalachian life are woven through the art and text of Moser’s adaptations, while modern perspectives on justice and injustice affect the fate of his characters.

Although Moser was influenced by memories of storytelling in his family, when he was a child books were handled, but not read (May, 1997, p. 52). His reading of Frankenstein as a college senior and his formal training in painting led to a career as a book illustrator and designer. He taught himself how to work with typography, calligraphy, engraving, and other aspects of book design such as paper selection. A founder of the Pennyroyal Press, he has illustrated over 100 classic works of literature, including a lavish edition of the Bible published in 1997. He began illustrating children’s books with the first of three volumes of Brer Rabbit stories, adapted by Van Dyke Parks and published in 1986.

Moser credits children’s literature with giving him the gifts of revived childhood memories and an introduction to the writing of fiction (Wildes, 1994). He has become a strong defender of children’s literature, opposing condescending attitudes toward it and arguing that high quality art is just as important in books for children as it is in books or paintings for adults. He views a book as a whole work of art, believing that “an illustrator must be a reader because an illustrator’s job is to provoke the text’s power in visual representations or augmentation” (May, 1997, p. 52). He points out that because of his lack of experience with literature in school, he brings a fresh reading to every book project. He looks for texts with images that interest him and then works with them until he has a new vision of an old story (May, 1997, p. 53). The three picture books discussed below show how Moser’s mature views about literature and book design produced illustrated stories in which European folklore is blended with late twentieth-century values and memories of Appalachian people and places.

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The Tinderbox

In the Afterword to The Tinderbox, Moser wrote, “I hope. . . I have been true to the essence of Andersen’s telling and to my own inherited instincts as a storyteller” (1990, p. 32). Reviewer Patricia Dooley (1990) observed, “Purists will be horrified. This is not just a retelling, but a complete reimagining of the tale” using Andersen’s plot and structure (p. 113). “The Tinderbox” was one of the first three stories published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1835. Since Andersen was retelling a story he had known in childhood, however, Moser is actually continuing the process of adaptation, as he does in the other two books based on older European folklore. For this one, he chose a post-Civil War setting. The Afterword says the Confederate soldier who is the protagonist “comes from somewhere like Sequatchie, Tennessee,” and the heroine’s dress “maybe came from somewhere up the river in Ohio” (p. 32). Many other small details add realism to the portrait of a poor, “tired and tattered” soldier named Yoder Ott, traveling home from the war and then settling in a small mountain hamlet (p. 9).

Yoder makes his fortune magically after meeting an old man who sends him down inside a mountain to recover money and a tinderbox the man claims is an heirloom his grandma left down there. Yoder is a lucky folk hero who ends up with wealth, popularity, and a beautiful mayor’s daughter to marry. Moser may have chosen this story partly because he was attracted to the three magical dogs in the underground chamber. They guard hoards of money and appear to do the hero’s bidding when he strikes the tinderbox (like the genie within the lamp that is found by passing through three halls under the mountains in the story of Aladdin). Moser has written several picture books featuring dogs, and he acknowledges that his own dogs were models for two of the striking portraits of the dogs with huge eyes in this story. He gives these dogs names—Orvis, Ulyss, and Youlie; Yoder tries different pronunciations of the latter name so that the words You-lie emphasize the issues of truth and trust in the story. Moser wrote, “My version, like Andersen’s, is told under an umbrella of wonder and magic” (1990, p. 32). He captured that wonder and magic best in the cover illustration of the gigantic black dog with “wild green eyes” as big as saucers (p. 13), flying through the night sky in front of a full moon, carrying Elvira away to meet Yoder.

Most of the watercolor illustrations are portraits of main characters, both human and canine. Dooley (1990) observes that “their vivid individuality convincingly links the real, the historic, and the fantastic, giving a new, distinctly American life to the tale. Moser's reincarnation of this story is as magical as any fairy-tale transformation” (p. 113). Moser notes, “The ogre-curmudgeon is an East Tennessee mountain man, the likes of which I saw many a time as I grew up there” (1990, p. 32). One illustration is an interesting portrait of Yoder in the landscape, with a cliff that looks like a face. My colleagues at Ferrum College observed that we can see the landscape in the people and vice versa, and that the “old codger” is “a mountain of a man.”

Like the story of Aladdin, this is not the type of tale with a folk hero who is rewarded for his unsullied virtue. Yoder squanders the gold the “old codger” helped him retrieve from inside the mountain and he steals the magic tinderbox from the old man. Moser’s protagonist is not as brutal as Andersen’s, who cuts off the head of a “hideous” witch after she sends him down inside a tree for the money and then demands her tinderbox (Andersen, 1909, p. 370). Yoder contributes to the old man’s demise by stepping aside when the man lunges for his tinderbox that Yoder won’t give him, and he falls off the mountainside. Later, when Yoder is about to be hanged for seeing the mayor’s daughter at night, he cleverly asks for his final wish, “one last smoke” of his pipe; then when they bring his tinderbox, he summons his dogs, who attack the mayor and his wife and officials (p. 31). Moser does not say they were broken into pieces as Andersen does with the king and queen in his story, but they are eliminated in a mysterious way and Yoder is instantly made mayor.

This story contains a parody of small-town justice and injustice. Yoder is wildly popular with the fickle townspeople when he is a rich newcomer, but they lose respect for him when he is as poor as they are, the “henpecked” mayor decides to hang him without trial, and the people treat the hanging like a village fair, cheering when he approaches the gallows. Then they suddenly decide he’s “innocent and kind” and worthy to be mayor after he uses magic to free himself and destroy his enemies (p. 31). There is some justice in the way he frees Elvira because her parents hadn’t let her out of their house in five years, but there is a strange fairy tale magic and mystery in the suddenly changing fortunes of the characters. Since Yoder acquires wealth and political power by getting money from deep, dark, damp underground caverns, and by stealing the heirloom of a crusty old mountain man, this fairy tale with the post-Civil War setting seems to foreshadow the fate of Appalachian mountains and towns that were plundered for decades—physically, economically and politically—by coal companies, with ambitious young men of the region like Yoder taking charge in some towns. The townspeople are too easily seduced by his charm and wealth. The curmudgeon tries to make a deal with Yoder to benefit both of them, but, like many Appalachian people who lost their land, he loses his heritage and his life in the process when confronted by the greedy younger man who uses his light to benefit himself.

Like many folktales, this story contains humor and romance as well as exposing some of the dark and enigmatic realities of the human psyche and social relations. Moser’s Afterward describes the soldier “along the way discovering a great truth: truly important things, like faith and trust, love and friendship, are beyond wealth” (p. 32). But Moser’s text and illustrations do not convince me that Yoder embraces these positive values. Although the plot suggests that Yoder will live happily ever after as the rich new mayor married to Elvira, it does not say for sure that she will marry him, and these capricious townspeople are not likely to remain loyal forever. The illustrations contain isolated portraits of individuals—no communal scenes of townspeople or happy couples. Yoder rides off to Elvira’s house with the dogs in the last illustration, a silhouette against a dark landscape with a pale, fading sunset behind the animals, man and wagon. There is no traditional fairy tale scene of the lovers together, and the dogs and mayor’s wagon carrying Yoder are moving toward the left, a perspective that often indicates lack of positive progress in the physical action on picture book pages. Yoder is shown on the back cover when he’s prosperous, but if you look at the letters on the bank behind him, it appears that the bank is crooked, or at least there is a hint of instability in the crooked letters. Just as Andersen used the fairy tale form to both entertain his audience and satirize a corrupt monarchy that ruled by fear—fear of the hero’s magic in the end of Andersen’s story, Moser shows that power and light could be stolen, justice could be purchased in small Appalachian towns, and yet, in spite of his faults, a clever young man who keeps his wits about him could come out looking like a dashing hero in the end.

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Polly Vaughn

Life is tragically unjust for the young lovers in Polly Vaughn. In ancient European versions of the ballad Moser adapted, the heroine is an enchanted woman who appears at times in the form of a swan. Since the nineteenth century, the characters and the circumstances of their tragedy have taken more realistic forms. Polly is young woman wearing white lace who is mistaken for a swan or a deer and shot accidentally by her own lover, Jimmy Randall. Moser extends this transformation of the old story by surrounding Polly and Jimmy with a blend of both realistic and melodramatic details, placing the tragedy in the context of a family feud in a place called Cold Iron Mountain. Jimmy is a young miner and Polly is a typical mountain miner’s daughter, not beautiful but sweet and likable. Shown together as smiling second-grade children with missing front teeth in the first illustration within the story, the lovers have been best friends since kindergarten, and the accident occurs in the midst of preparations for their wedding.

Moser subtitled this adaptation “A Traditional British Ballad Designed, Illustrated, and Retold in an American Setting.” The book does not mention that the ballad has also been sung and collected in America, in Appalachian states and elsewhere. Polly Vaughn is also known as Molly Bawn and there are many other variations on her name (see, for example, the song "Molly Vaunder" in this web site). Some variants are titled “The Shooting of his Dear.” Thus Moser’s adaptation is one of many American versions, but his method of retelling and illustrating the story is certainly original. The Kirkus reviewer (1992) observes, “Though Moser's narrative reads smoothly, it runs to rather prosaic explanations, whereas a ballad's power is derived from leaving all but the essentials to the imagination.” It is true that Moser could never reproduce in prose the haunting spareness of the ballad form; it is difficult to adapt a ballad or short folktale into a longer prose narrative or drama. Yet he skillfully maintains the tragic and melodramatic atmosphere of the tale while also adding abundant realistic details about the young couple, their childhood, and their community. There is ironic and horrible foreshadowing in the description on the first page of Polly’s “fawn-colored hair” and her loving care of animals. Contemporary values are revealed in the emphasis on Polly’s abilities as “a tomboy” and Jimmy’s utter distaste for the hunting rituals that his brothers and father love as a sport. A beautiful picture of a living doe in the woods, her breath visible in the cold air, faces description of the rite of manhood forced on Jimmy at age ten, when killing the doe “out of season” (after mistaking her for a buck) and having her blood smeared on his face make him feel no different except that he is “a little sick to his stomach.” Later he will hunt when food is needed and unfortunately, his mother asks him to look for meat on the fateful day when he goes out to meet Polly and shoots her.

In the Afterword Moser notes, “Like all folk ballads, it is a story about ordinary people in everyday situations. Its plot is based on local lore and topical events, much like a local newspaper or national tabloid.” Next to Moser’s illustrations in this book are labels resembling the captions in a news report or magazine, except that some of these captions focus on symbolic and emotional details, such as Polly’s “lace collar stained with blood” and the sheriff’s dread at the funeral when he is forced by Polly’s father to arrest Jimmy. The illustrations are mostly single or small group portraits that reveal much about each individual’s character and prevent any stereotyping of players in this classic drama of star-crossed mountain lovers, a family feud and a murder trial. All the pathos of innocent Polly’s death in her homemade lace collar and buckskin jacket, as well as Jimmy’s broken heart, are offset by a piercing portrait of his stern parents, both holding guns, steeling themselves and protecting their home as they wait for Polly’s parents to pick up her body, expecting some kind of revenge from the grieving father, Mr. Randall’s enemy.

Justice is hard and swift for Jimmy in Moser’s version of the story, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that injustice comes swiftly. Polly’s father won’t let her mother serve as a character witness and no one among the living helps Jimmy defend himself before the jury of his neighbors convicts him, with their parson serving as jury foreman in the courtroom of the impatient judge known as “High Gear Harland T. Slaymaker.” Jimmy’s self-defense is influenced not by only his memories of Polly, but also by advice she gives him, appearing in a vision in his jail cell the night before the trial. After he is convicted, she enters the courtroom in a dramatic flurry of wind and snow. An illustration depicts her as part woman, part deer and snow—a force of nature representing love, compassion, and also justice, since she reminds the men that they “taught him that hunting is a badge of courage, . .[and] . smeared his face with the blood of a doe. . . . Please judge my Jimmer fairly,” she pleads.

The ballad implies that she helps get Jimmy acquitted and some versions state explicitly that “Jimmy Randall goes clear” (McNeil, 1987, p. 96). Moser exchanges twentieth-century psychological realism for this legendary ending. His jurors are stern men who believe they would not shoot a person by accident while hunting. They hear a ranting witness who is obviously biased against the Randalls even though he has no proof that the Randall men killed his dogs while poaching on his land. And the jurors will not admit that they hear the supernatural voice in the wind and snow in the courtroom, so they let stand old Jedediah’s claim that it could be a carnival trick set up by the Randalls. Moser then introduces compassion in his own verbal and visual portrayal of Jimmy’s hanging, with a very effective depiction of the boy’s fear as he looks back toward home and the past one last time before the stone-faced men hang him from the huge tree with branches shaped like a twisted heart in the center. The falling snow swirls into a lace collar in the last illustration as Polly embraces him ‘like a shroud of cold, white lace” at the moment of death. The short text on this last double-page spread is printed in a triangular shape like a whirlwind, with a symbolic white snowflake shape beneath the empty space on the page.

Of course these bloody and tragic ballads did not originate as stories for children and this book, with its detailed narrative and illustrations, is a good example of a picture book that appeals to teenagers and other older readers. The many details about the families, their stubborn feud over land, and their community, along with Moser’s notes at the end about other ballads and ghost stories, provide ample material for literary and cultural analysis, or comparison of a variety of related folk narratives. Kristi Sumpter’s sixth-grade class in Roanoke, Virginia studied this book, with some of the students writing their own poems about Polly and Jimmy (See "Polly is Dead" by Drew Howell). But the book also attracts younger audiences. When my nine-year-old nephew got a glimpse of the picture of Polly with blood at her throat, he insisted that I read him the story, especially after I said it is difficult and frightening. Although he claimed he didn’t like books in those days, he was spellbound while I read the whole story, yelling at anyone who interrupted us. Since many children like him are fascinated by age three or four with guns and gory stories, this tale that raises many questions about the dangers of hunting, the destructive effects of prejudice, and the power of love can have a more meaningful influence than the violent movies and TV shows they often watch.

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Tucker Pfeffercorn

Tucker Pfeffercorn is a picture book that is more appealing for reading with younger children, who enjoy noting the parallels with "Rumpelstiltskin." Moser said at a children’s literature seminar (1996) that he originally thought of setting the story on a slave plantation, but he became convinced that it would be too controversial for publication. It was a brilliant idea, nevertheless, to transplant this story of patriarchal tyranny and a victimized female laborer in a coal town. Although it is set in the middle of the twentieth century, it is the most contemporary of these three books in the views incorporated into the story. Moser produced a very feminist reworking of the European fairy tale. The heroine, Bessie Grace, is not victimized by her own father. It is the old men in the role of the town gossips and storytellers who claim that she can spin gold, not from straw, but from cotton in this adaptation. Instead of a king, it is the massive and domineering coal boss, Hezakiah Sweatt, who overhears the tall tale. (Obviously, almost all the names are symbolic in this story.) Described as “Fearless and strong willed,” Bessie Grace forthrightly calls the storyteller a liar and defends herself, but Hezakiah locks her in an old shed until she can produce the gold.

Later she does not promise her future firstborn child to the mysterious little man who appears magically and spins the gold. At nineteen she already has a baby from her marriage to a man who died in the mines. It is because Hezakiah holds her baby hostage that she is so desperate to get free and yells at Hezakiah when he comes back for the gold. Each time she accepts the little man’s help, she offers him something and he says vaguely, “Maybe one of these days, I’ll take me som’thin.” When she offers anything she has, her desire to pay for his help overshadows the more negative implications of the folktale motif of the foolhardy promise. After that Bessie Grace does not marry the tyrant who had imprisoned her and demanded gold from her. Hezakiah Sweatt mysteriously disappears while away on business—a dramatic example of fairy tale wish fulfillment in a coal town setting. Thus Bessie Grace gets to keep her gold and gain independence in the end.

Of course, the strange little man does come back for somethin’ and it is the baby, so Bessie Grace has to save her child from evil threats a second time by begging for mercy, and then trying to discover the man’s name when he suggests this riddle as an alternative. She goes out herself, unlike the queen in some versions of “Rumpelstiltskin,” and finds the man in a graveyard singing a little rhyme ending with “My name from me ain’t never been torn!/It’s Tucker! Tucker Pfeffercorn!” Bessie Grace plays the usual guessing game with the mysterious man, this time giving guesses such as “Stanley Stinkbreath” and “Buddy Boogernose.” When she guesses Tucker Pfeffercorn, he stomps so hard around the room that he hangs upside down and stomps some more until he splits himself in two. There is a clever use of typography in the way the words on the facing page are upside down in one line when he screams, “The devil told ya! The devil told ya!”

Later Bessie Grace gives some gold to the church, but she is also a self-reliant heroine who wants the best for her baby, so they move to Cincinnati. The gold sunshine permeating this final scene on the back page parallels an earlier illustration suffused with a golden glow while Tucker spins the gold. Tucker Pfeffercorn is the only book of the three to state explicitly that the protagonist lives “happily ever after,” and the only one focused on a very strong and virtuous main character who triumphs over her enemies. Bessie Grace is a modern fairy tale heroine who loves her baby fiercely, works hard in the fields, and defends herself without hesitation. On the gold cover, a picture of the young woman with arms around her baby, looking at him lovingly, appears in front of a large, misshapen shadow of Tucker Pfeffercorn, foreshadowing the corruption that threatens the innocent mother and child. After all the portraits in the other two books of solitary individuals and older couples with domineering husbands, as well as the illustrations in this one of the careless male gossips, the massive body of the frowning Hezakiah Sweatt, and Sweatt’s group of glaring thugs, the pictures of Bessie Grace with her baby are especially heart-warming. Although it is unfortunate that they have to leave their home in the end, the community offers too little support and social justice to hold their loyalty. Earlier in the story the townspeople who wanted to defend her were afraid to stand up to Hezakiah.

In the Appalachian towns portrayed in these books, injustice and suffering are caused by insiders as well as outsiders. The patriarchal communities support tradition, the judgments and misjudgments of older local men, and the influence of outsiders with power and wealth—often without regard for consequences affecting the young and innocent. But the most admirable characters are loving mountain people like Bessie Grace, Polly Vaughn, and Jimmy Randall. As in all the best fairy tales of world literature, these stories represent the conflicts and sorrows of human life while filling us with wonder at the magic wrought by human courage and love. The inclusion of realistic details in text and paintings, with piercing portraits of a wide variety of individual characters, makes Appalachian life and traditions familiar to a wide audience, but also prevents these books from contributing to stereotypical negative images or overly idealized and nostalgic portrayals of older rural cultures. (See Notes below.) Although there are many other wonderful tales that have been told within Appalachia for generations and remain closer to the oral traditions, both older folktales and these recently transplanted stories invite readers of all ages to compare related tales and ballads from different traditions, to participate in the “memory swap” described by Betsy Hearne (1999) and the inevitable expansion and enrichment of the fairy tale form discussed by Jack Zipes (2001). The Appalachian mountains and people, transformed through the imagination and artistic skill of Barry Moser, reflect the the "magic and wonder" he saw in these three European tales he transplanted in Appalachia.

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Notes

Moser created similar realistic watercolors for a nonfiction picture book by one of the most successful contemporary Appalachian writers for children, Cynthia Rylant (1991). Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds has provoked much debate about whether it is too nostalgic and sentimental in its portrayal of mid-twentieth-century childhood in Appalachia. See Teaford (1998, pp. 20-21). Roberta Herrin (1996) discusses the pressure from publishers to produce “the cute, nostalgic rustic ‘Appalachian story,’” which she suggests may account for the popularity of Rylant’s books. Herrin notes that one “group of contemporary children’s authors hangs on to the old sentimentality and simultaneously grapples with the new realism, gestating in a sometimes troubling state of paradox that combines inventiveness with cliché, sophistication with naiveté, brilliance with drogg, the magical with the mundane” (p. 32). Moser’s trilogy of fairy tales reflects a similar blend of nostalgia and contemporary realism.

See also in AppLit:


References

Andersen, H. C. (1909). The tinder-box. In Folk-lore and fable: Aesop, Grimm, Andersen. The Harvard Classics. (Vol. 17). (pp. 370-76). New York: Collier.

Dooley, P. (1990). Review of The tinderbox. School Library Journal, 36, 113.

Hearne, B. (1999, Winter). Swapping tales and stealing stories: The ethics and aesthetics of folklore in children’s literature.” Library Trends, 47, 509-28.

Herrin, R. (1996, Fall). Gloria Houston and the burden of the ‘old culture.’ Appalachian Journal, 24 , 31-42.

May, J. (1997, Summer). ‘The act of shedding light’: Barry Moser talks about illustrating books. Bookbird, 35, 51-55.

McNeil, W. K. (Ed.). (1987). Southern folk ballads. American Folklife Series. (Vol. 1). Little Rock, AK: August House.

Moser, B. (1992). Polly Vaughn. Boston: Little, Brown. N. pag.

Moser, B. (1996, October 11-12). Remarks. Children’s literature symposium: The art of the children’s book. Clemson University.

Moser, B. (1990). The tinderbox. Boston: Little, Brown.

Moser, B. (1994). Tucker Pfeffercorn: An old story retold. Boston: Little, Brown. N. pag.

Moser, Barry. (1995). Something about the author. (Vol. 79). (pp. 146-52). Detroit: Gale Research.

Review of Polly Vaughan (1992, April 1). Kirkus Reviews, 40, 469.

Rylant, C. (1991). Appalachia: The voices of sleeping birds. Ill. B. Moser. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Teaford, J. (1998). Contemporary Appalachian picture books. (Master of Arts thesis, Marshall University Graduate College, Charleston, WV).

Wildes, S. (1994). Interview with Barry Moser. BookPage. Rpt. 1998. Retrieved January 2, 1999 from the World Wide Web.  Available in Feb. 2002 at http://wildes.home.mindspring.com/OUAL/int/moserbarry.html.

Zipes, J. (2001). Sticks and stones: The troublesome success of children’s literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge.


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