It seems that most of us grew up hearing stories told by adults. These could be fairy tales or folks tales or in my case cleverly crafted tales in which my grandfather was the hero. A tale I remember best is my grandfather’s adventures in the Navy. He would tell us the tale of how he had to jump off the side of the ship in the middle of nowhere smack dab in the ocean and swim under the ship and come out on the other side (while it was still moving mind you) before he could go to the mess hall to receive his dinner. All of this while in full uniform and not losing his cap and chewing his plug of tobacco. We’d sit wide-eyed and gobble his stories. We never believed him but that didn’t mean we didn’t want to hear them.
I don’t remember specifically hearing Uncle Remus’ tales as a child but I did know the story of Brer Rabbit, a very cunning cotton-tail. (I do remember devouring Beatrix Potter’s stories of Peter Rabbit but that is a post for another day) Julius Lester does a wonderful job retelling these African-American folktales that his grandmother told him. We learn how the animals got to Earth, why they quarrel, and in some cases why they look the way they do. These are stories of greed, mischief, and outwitting the other. There are valuable lessons to learn, but most of all these are entertaining stories. The animals are so busy trying to outsmart the next or to get by that they don’t see that they are being outsmarted. It’s all very entertaining, especially because the smallest of them all is the biggest trickster.
Lester tells the stories just like you are sitting there listening, even breaking the story to provide commentary or perhaps an answer to the reader’s questions. For example In Brer Rabbit Gets Even:
“About a week later Brer Rabbit decided to visit with Miz Meadows and the girls. Don’t come asking me who Miz Meadows and her girls were. I don’t know, but then again, ain’t no reason I got to know. Miz Meadows and the girls were in the tale when it was handed to me, and they gon’ be in it when I hand it to you. And that’s the way the rain falls on that one.”
I read them straight through. Lester’s retellings are accessible and flow from one story to the next, picking up where the last left off. The Introduction provides insight into the language and the structure of the stories. Uncle Remus is omitted from this volume along with the original interpretation of Southern Black dialogue as provided by Joel Chandler Harris. I have not read previous versions of Uncle Remus so I can not compare. From the introduction it is clear that stereotypical and racist aspects of the stories have been changed, “the stories could be removed from their slave setting without losing any of their unique qualities” to make them accessible to new generations of children and for the ease of retelling in group settings to children who might be sensitive to the subject.