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Now on to Hiawatha and the shores of Gitchee Gumee…
Destination: Upper Peninsula of Michigan
Book: Hiawatha (Picture Puffins), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Susan Jeffers (A Puffin Picture Book)
My mother loved poetry and as a teacher she persuaded many a skeptical student to become lovers of poetry, too. Her tricks included presenting poems with strong rhythm (The highwayman came riding, riding, riding…), poems that told stories (Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…), or limericks for anything-goes humor.
I remember her reading from Longfellow’s American literature classic, The Song of Hiawatha about the boyhood of Hiawatha, Ojibwa brave. Her voice pulsed dramatically with the drum beat of
By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
When I saw this children’s book version in a museum store, I could not resist. What child does not like nonsense words? And these words from another language certainly sounded silly–Gitchee Gumee–but Mother read it all with great seriousness.
I did not realize until much later that these were the actual myths of an actual Indian people who lived just a few hundred miles away from where I grew up. And the langauge was not just nonsense words. Gitchee Gumme meant Lake Superior. I had never thought of Hiawatha as travel literature. Longfellow tells the Indian legends with respect and as much accuracy as 19th century anthropology could muster. He based his epic poem on stories collected by Jane and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Henry generally gets the credit, since he was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the state of Michigan from 1836 to 1891. But Jane was an Ojibwa, the tribe who lived in the thick forests of the northern peninsula of Michigan along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
On my recent visit to the area, our group of travel writers dropped by the Ojibwa Cultural Center in St. Ignace and learned a bit about their customs and legends. I also learned that the European settlers warped Ojibwa into Chippewa, and the terms are used almost interchangeably now.
For the first time since my mother had read to me from The Song of Hiawatha, I saw the forests and streams and the Shining Big Sea Water that were the home of the hero, Hiawatha and the setting of the original legends. It all seemed very familiar.
How a city kid could envy that little Indian boy –living in a wigwam surrounded by friendly animals in the forest with streams to ride in a canoe and a grandmother who taught him secret names of everything–even the fireflies. Every question he asked was answered with a story.
Although Longfellow’s poem is meant for adults, and is much too long to hold a child’s attention,for this Puffin publications picture book, Susan Jeffers has selected the part of it that will most interest a child. The beauty of her illustrations take your breath away. They convey the real world of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the Ojibwa still live. But the pictures also have a soft, dream-like quality appropriate for legends– or for a book to inspire travel to Michigan.
See the entire Song of Hiawatha at Poet’s Corner.
This press trip was sponsored by various local tourism entities through their public relations firm. I purchased the book with my own money,although I am a poor, underpaid writer. The book title is linked to Amazon, and because I am an affiliate of Amazon, any purchase you make through that link, although it costs you no more, benefits A Traveler’s Library. THANKS! All pictures are my property. Please do not reproduce without express permission.
Have you seen other picture books illustrated by Susan Jeffers? Her web site shows such beautiful books that I am tempted to buy them all. Or do you have another favorite among children’s book illustrators?