Barefoot Helen and the Giants
Barefoot Helen and the Giants
Once or twice upon a time or times, there was - or is, or isn’t or wasn’t, or wis or wasn’t - an old couple, a fisherman and a fisherwoman, who to their great sorrow, have no children.
One evening while walking along a river path, they see a little girl wandering along through the woods. Her hair is long and wild, and she wears clothes woven from birch back, feathers, leaves, and grass. Although she speaks no human language, she is healthy, strong, and smart; she can climb the tallest tree and run as fast as light. She knows where all the animals live, where all the berries are, and how to sleep in hollow tree or a deep cave.
Fairy tales often begin with an out-of-place character embarking on an ambitious or unusual journey. So it is with Barefoot Helen and the Giants, a blend of Newfoundland, traditional and contemporary stories in which a wild girl with hairy legs defeats dangerous giants and, in doing so, finds love and her long lost family.
Andy Jones. well-known Newfoundland actor, writer, director and former member of the comedy troupe CODCO, has penned a clever, modern and funny story, a worthy successor to his other works for middle grade children, Peg Bearskin ( www.cmreviews.ca/node/657 ) and Jack, the King of Ashes ( www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol21/no21/jackthekingofashes.html ) and other “Jack” tales.
Jones has creatively combined elements of various traditional fairy tales, folk tales and modern adaptations. In Jones’ telling, a childless couple raise a foundling who leaves them when they move to the city. She goes to live in the forest where she feels most at home.
Helen’s journey to discover herself takes her on paths she did not anticipate. Without understanding why, she’s adept at living in the woods. Without realizing her own strength and ability, she outwits three nasty giants and, in doing so, anonymously saves the life of a princess. Without understanding that the princess is searching for her, Helen finds the antidote to her loneliness. Without realizing how she has affected others, she learns why she has hairy legs and only nine toes, and, as a result, the search for her identity and for her family is completed. Happily, Helen finds her true love, but, in this story, her "love-at-first-sight" partner is the princess, breaking the typical fairy tale mold. Jones weaves their relationship into the narrative without fanfare. Because love is love is love.
Helen is one plucky, lucky girl, playing against type, naturally confounding every stereotype. An endearing feature of the story is the smart-aleck dialogue in Newfoundland dialect. The rollicking beat to the story makes unfamiliar words believable and, although sometimes impossible to define, easy to imagine:
“What am I doing here?” Helen mutters to herself, “a big, poor, hairy-footed, nine-toed galoutte-girl holding a king’s sword in a princess’s bedroom … I gotta get back to the woods!”
The other characters are also comfortable with the vernacular. The kingdom’s princess is equally a contrary figure. She defies the giant to try and kidnap her:
“Come ahead, Bulleybum. Ya don’t scare me, because we got a magic can that’s just itching to lick out your brains for breakfast!!!”
Segues, asides and starred phrases with eyebrow-raising explanations add to the humour and enjoyment of the story.
Jones takes the characters on a fast-paced adventure that has a bit of magic and a lot of love and guts. He gives readers a few clues to what will happen but nevertheless surprises them pleasantly at every step of the way. His modern twist to Helen’s happiness raises the stakes for this entertaining fairy tale which should please children as a read-aloud. Educators teaching a unit about fairy tales or parents looking to keep their kids busy can use it as a prompt for children to adapt traditional fairy tales with new twists - contemporary, fantastic, magical or realistic - it’s all up to the author.
British writer, illustrator and graphic artist Katie Brosnan’s rough-looking drawings suit Helen and her unpretentious life. Brosnan has also written her own children’s books, for which she has received attention and awards in England and Europe. In Barefoot Helen and the Giants, she captures the feel of an old Newfoundland tale but adds modern touches, such as the very modern-styled Long Night Hotel where people can come to spin yarns without reproach for not telling the truth - All You Can Eat! Nothing to Pay! A Yarn to Spin!” the marquee declares.
By blending so many stories and setting the traditional story in the modern world, Jones has taken Barefoot Helen beyond the shores of Newfoundland. Barefoot Helen and the Giants will be appreciated and remembered by middle grade children as a smartly-written, lively tale that shows how mature issues can be addressed positively.
Harriet Zaidman is a children’s and freelance writer and a book reviewer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba,. Her middle years novel, City on Strike, (www.cmreviews.ca/node/756) focuses on children involved in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.