Sunday
Mar022014

The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths

By Sandy Longhorn


 

Jacar Press
October 2013
978-0989795203

 

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Winn


 

Cautionary tales, by nature, do not have happy endings. Their disastrous outcomes are meant to be instructive. Sandy Longhorn's The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths provides her reader with a method for reading these "myths" straight out of the gate. In the first poem, "Disclaimer," she writes, "The author has taken liberties […] [s]he leans into her pen." The poem orients us in the world of the book, a world which is ominous and beautiful, but where things are difficult to identify or pin down, and the treatment of the particular as foreign gives us a peephole into the cruelty of strangers or the inner workings of saints. We're situated in the landscape immediately by a speaker who is not strictly sympathetic to her characters, but who is very connected to her immediate surroundings. Although the setting for these poems is important, as place always is, the mythology in the title is no exaggeration. Longhorn guides us through the dangerous landscape, not a true prairie any more than the woods in Grimm's tales are just woods. She gives us specifics in the form of a distant horizon, a flashy bird. The poet emerges with the story in her hands, still gritty from being "coax[ed] [...] out of the ground, out of a concrete bunker beneath the stairs."

It's clear to me that Longhorn considered each type of traditional tale when she crafted this book. Every category is covered. If an ethnographer came across the last survivor of Longhorn's prairie and these stories were all that she heard, she would have a clear picture of the values of the book's constructed community. Longhorn's poems enact the motifs of fairy tales, using magic, but intertwine them with her saints' stories, so that there are miracles which could be magical, or vice versa. Each poem is regional in a sense, because of the geographical features of the land embedded in it. Like tall tales, these poems seem to have the seed of truth embedded in them, grown large in retelling. While all of these stories are cautionary tales, and have the feeling of fables, the morals here are harder to read. Myths and pourquoi tales grow wild here, where the reader is given the impression that the reason things happen will later be revealed. But in the end, the true meaning is still obscure, although not in a frustrating way. This is done artfully, so that I wanted to go back and scour the poems again for the lessons I missed.

Although The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths could be seen as a long book of folk tales, other types of stories are clearly explored and meticulously crafted. Longhorn uses each story type in a balanced and methodical way, without retelling a single traditional tale. She is careful not to refer to existing stories. These poem-tales are distinctive and specific to the landscape of Longhorn's prairie. Animals talk, and miracles read as fairy stories rather than myths. The wind is newly explained; it becomes a mother figure in "Why the Wind," in which the actual mother is present, but vaguely threatening, her "knife slid[ing] through the tomato's skin, cutting thick slaps— / juice red, flesh red, seeds a tangled web." In this poem, as in many others in this book, the landscape becomes a character, sometimes with agency, sometimes not. Because of this, these poems don't read as regional folk tales as much as actual myths. Longhorn uses the explanation method to tell her own stories about what happens in life on the prairie, when the prairie becomes part of you, or you become part of it. In each, the prairie is unpredictable. It could take you in or turn on you, sometimes with the same end result, as in "Fairy Tale for Girls in Love with Fire":

In the end, while no one knows who struck
the match, she didn't have to run to meet
the prairie fire. Instead, she welcomed the spark
into her own lap, became nothing but a blaze.
No amount of water could stop her burning.

Here, in Longhorn's prairie, personal identity reflects the landscape, and in some cases identity is completely absorbed by the landscape, literally and figuratively. In "Cautionary Tale for Girls Kept Underground in Summer," the speaker notes, "They found her there, immovable, / her limbs tangled in the dense bed of roots, her speech / the foreign tongue of all things planted." The landscape broadens in definition to include things which are not natural but are integral to this geography—root cellars, farm tools, a barn "given over to the weather"—so that we read a landscape underneath a landscape, replete with its own religious relics, saints' stories, cautionary tales, and geography lessons. This is sentient geography, the kind of land that chooses to absorb or reject its inhabitants—the girl under the stairs, the farmer in his Dekalb cap, the trucker. The characters are specific, but also could be anyone, just as a woodcutter and his wife could be an IT programmer and his wife.

The archetypes change, the stories remain. These are survival stories, told by survivors to survivors, passed down in the poems themselves by a group of people who do not yet understand their neighbors or what there is to fear. The tension is in not knowing what the full moral of these tales is, or what ending we'd like better. It gives the reader a sense of purpose in rereading, to explore the stories over and over, to find meaning or some sense of solace in the retelling. Not knowing what else to do is dangerous to the self. The prairie of Longhorn's poetry is a landscape stripped of hope, where people turn on their neighbors as a wolf might chew off his own leg caught in a trap.

Longhorn gives us stories as we have always used stories—to provide a way out of the woods. She uses ancient storytelling devices to explore the idea of home without being confined by strictly geographic boundaries. Although only one section is labeled "Cautionary Season," all of these tales have a dark edge. She instructs us using cautionary tales, saints' stories, Biblical allusions, and fairy tale tropes. Morals tend to intertwine. Most have to do with embracing the land, but being careful not to get too attached. Some expose the dangers of small town life and small mindedness, as if they are inevitably inseparable because of the isolation enforced by the landscape. In the same bloody tradition of Grimm, and of saints' stories, these are not pretty, Disneyfied versions of truth or religion. The landscape is not the only oppressive presence, although it is clearly one with agency, sometimes maledictive and sometimes alluring, full of fathers, who don't care or are careless (almost the same thing), neighbors who ostracize, then canonize girls.

Longhorn's poems are well crafted and lean, polished until they have the patina of a statue in an ancient temple—not dated, timeless. All the more true in the retelling. Darkly satisfying, these poems left me feeling more prepared to venture into the world, which is, after all, the most and best any book can give.