Book Review: Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers By: Richard M. Dorson

712699I’m on a roll, inching toward my 2017 non-fiction reading goal. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of the Upper Peninsula makes three out of ten NF books and it’s only the beginning of March. Not too bad!

I’ve always been interested in fairy tales and folk stories, so I was interested in hearing about the real people and places behind some of these tales. Living in Wisconsin, my husband and I have visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula several times, a somewhat eccentric but naturally beautiful area. With a unique conglomeration of native people, European immigrants, miners, lumberjacks, outlaws, and family men, the Upper Peninsula has become a melting pot for intriguing tall tales, folk stories, legends, and fairy tales.

The Blurb

Folklore as it comes from the mouths of living storytellers has a matchless authority and conviction. Richard Dorson, living for five months among the Indians, Finns, Canadiens, Cornishmen, lumberjacks, sailors, miners, and sagamen of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has listened to their tales, which this book reproduces with all their native thunder and salt. With this lively evidence he proves that America still has its myth-makers and purveyors of myth, who represent, both ethnically and historically, an enormous range of traditional oral folklore.

We meet the Chippewa and Potawatomi Indians, who tell their own heroic versions of the wars with the white men, and whose chief delight is to relate the adventures of the folk hero, Winabijou. For them, as for the French-Canadians and Finns, magical beliefs have been part of their daily education and entertainment. Each group has its own version of European folk tales: the old fairy stories find new form as dragons are conquered with razors and soap, and giants talk in the idiom of the backwoods and pioneer towns.

Some of these myths center around imaginary and semi-imaginary folk heroes; others spring from local politics, and even more from local occupations. The woods tales of lumberjacks, the tragic mysteries of the mines, the weird adventures on the Lakes, each kind of tale has its representative teller. Sometimes the raconteur’s most exciting fables concern his own wonderful exploits with women, drink, and wicked employers. Rooted deep in storytelling tradition, these tales hark back to the frontier and immigrant past of an America shaped by many peoples with extraordinary experiences.

Mr. Dorson provides, in his introduction, a simple account of the idea behind the book and his methods of procuring the tales, in concise and closely written notes at the end of the book he furnishes annotations to the tales which should satisfy and stimulate every folklorist, professional or otherwise. Mr. Dorson did much of the fieldwork for this book under a Library of Congress Fellowship; he has also held a Harvard Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Faculty Study Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

My Take?

This was a wonderfully intriguing book, but admittedly a bit a a slog to read through. This non-fiction account of storytelling traditions was first published in 1952 and many of the terms and concepts are somewhat outdated. Many of the stories are duplicates, slight variations retold among different local and ethnic groups, each giving these tales their own traditional flavor.

The writing style is very straightforward in Dorson’s narratives, but can become a bit difficult to follow in the actual tale re-tellings. Dorson attempted to stay true to the storyteller’s style, using local dialects and unfamiliar phrasings that can be challenging. The author also worked with the help of language interpreters, so I have the feeling that significant parts of some stories were lost in translation, leaving the tales feeling hollow and unfinished.

The stories themselves range from tragic tales of the workers lost in mining collapses, to the harrowing feats of the native hero Winabijou. There were even a couple interesting re-tellings of Cinderella, one about a Native American woman searching for her lost husband, finding him only after he allowed her to try on the slippers he had stolen from her. Another European retelling did a gender-swap, where a young boy was granted a horse with diamond shoes to climb up a mountain to meet his princess. Whether a comedy, epic romance, or haunting ghost story, all of the tales in this book reiterated the harsh and dangerous lifestyles of the Upper Peninsula.

Even though it was a bit difficult to follow at times, overall this was an impressive work, spanning tales from peoples of many ethnicities, careers, economic statuses, and walks of life.  I give Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers Three out of Five stars. If you don’t mind some awkward dialect and difficult language, this book is a great source for Michigan folklore and a few good laughs.

Anyone else out there doing a non-fiction book challenge? Let me know how your challenge is going!

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