December 01, 2005


American Tall Tales. By Mary Pope Osborne. Wood engravings by Michael McCurdy. Knopf. $22.

Kung Fu High School. By Ryan Gattis. Harcourt. $13.

     Political correctness isn’t really a good fit with American tall tales.  The stories of the conquering of the frontier are replete with denigrations of Indians, blacks, women and animals.  Mary Pope Osborne tries to do something about that fact in American Tall Tales, but unfortunately she sucks some of the life out of the stories in the process.  Osborne admits to being “less than enthusiastic about the goal of conquering the wilderness at all costs” and wanting to “attempt to bring out the more vulnerable and compassionate side of the tall-tale characters.”  No, this does not mean that Paul Bunyan takes up knitting or Davy Crockett tries to broker a peace agreement with Mexico, but it does mean some of the flavor that makes these stories funny (and gives them their longevity) is lost.  The nine tales are about Crockett, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind (a composite of several women), Johnny Appleseed, Stormalong, Mose, Febold Feboldson, Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan.  Not all these tales remain well known today – Stormalong, Mose and Febold are regional stories – but all retain a flavor of a time when the United States was a much younger land, its people needing heroes to help them overcome the hardships of daily life.  Even in Osborne’s somewhat Bowdlerized form, there is much to like in these stories, from the coyotes raising Pecos Bill to Paul Bunyan’s conquering of the “bee-squitoes,” bee-mosquito hybrids with stingers at both ends.  Still, it’s a shame that Osborne was unwilling to keep these rough-hewn stories in something closer to their original form.

     Kung Fu High School is a tall tale of today, the story of a modern school – officially called MLK High School – where order has broken down, gangs rule the hallways, and the principal is the puppet of a local drug kingpin.  Intended as serious, Ryan Gattis’ book is often so overdone that it flunks the believability test: “’Where’d you get hit?’ he asked.  I pointed to my leg and also to my lower back, right on my hip.  Dad looked back to the television.  It was nothing he hadn’t seen before.  There’d been much worse.  Some bloodstains we couldn’t ever get out of the carpet.”  This is intended as gritty realism, but it comes perilously close to self-parody.  The plot, which sounds like something out of a standardized action movie, doesn’t help matters: Jen and her brother, Cue, are with a few other students who try to stand up to the corrupt principal.  Cousin Jimmy, a world-renowned martial-arts expert, comes to town after vowing never to fight again.  This sets the stage for Cue to intervene on Jimmy’s behalf when Jimmy won’t defend himself – leading to a climactic battle of sort-of-good against evil.  The ending is not a happy one, but in seeking profundity and deep meaning, it comes across as simply trying too hard.  There is genuineness of feeling here, and an unnerving sense that the events are just a little too close to reality for comfort.  But the book’s contrived plot and profusion of violence make it seem, in the end, no more than a fairy tale that’s grimmer than the Grimms’.

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