Peg Bearskin: A Traditional Newfoundland Tale
Peg Bearskin: A Traditional Newfoundland Tale
Well now, after a while, Peg’s two sisters, they got jobs doing something or other. I don’t know what Peg was at all the time, but there was a king there, and he had three sons.
Now one day Peg minded that she was going to go and see the king. So she walked up to the palace gate and the guard asked her what dis she was.
Well, she say, I wants to see the king.
Most cultures have different versions of the same fairy tale - one has only to think of the many versions of Cinderella from all parts of the world - Aschenputtel by the Brothers Grimm, Ashley Pelt from Ireland, Rashen-Coatie from Scotland and many more. Not only are there different versions, but writers build on the traditional tales to create new stories. Children’s writer Jon Scieszaka brought new perspectives to famous stories in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales.
Scieszaka also extends the traditional story of prince who is freed from his warty frog skin by a princess’s kiss in The Frog Prince, Continued. It’s elements of that story that show up in the entertaining Peg Bearskin: A Traditional Newfoundland Folktale that has its origin in the Placentia Bay area of Newfoundland and its early settlers.
Luckily for Newfoundlanders and Canadians, traditional stories from early and rural Newfoundland were recorded and have been published again and again over the years. The late Philip Dinn (1949-2013) dedicated himself to keeping and developing Newfoundland culture. A member of the band Figgy Duff, an actor and writer, Dinn was part of a generation that revived pride in Newfoundland heritage beginning in the 1970s. Similarly, comedian, actor and writer Andy Jones (Jack, the King of Ashes [https://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol21/no21/jackthekingofashes.html] and others) continues to tell stories using the dialect and attitudes that reflect the unique circumstances of the island society’s melange of influences.
Well, Peg said, I’d take ya and I’d stuff ya down in a bag. Then I’d take ya on the side of the road and I’d leave ya there, and I’d go off into the woods and I’d cut some hazel rods and I’d come out and I’d beat ya ’til ya meowed like a cat, ’til ya barked like a dog and … and ’til yer bones rattled like crockery ware.
Peg Bearskin is a rough and tough story about the ugly sister who is also the smartest and who cleverly gets the better of a witch to the benefit of her family and the king. But her achievements are not appreciated because she’s not good-looking. When her own dreams for the handsome prince aren’t realized, she doesn’t despair. Using her brains again, she finds a way to accomplish her goal and teach the lesson that beauty is only skin deep. Not only is Peg happy, but to his surprise, so is her prince.
Peg Bearskin is not a sanitized fairy tale. The heroine shows no pangs of conscience when she makes a switch in a witch’s house that results in the witch murdering her own children, nor when she saws a bridge in half, knowing that a witch will melt and die when she hits the water. Peg’s dedication to her own family is unwavering, even though they keep her at arms’ length because she’s not beautiful.
As Newfoundland’s culture is influenced by the many groups that washed up on the Rock - Beothuk, Viking, Irish, Scots, Portuguese, West Indian, and more, so do the illustrations reflect the origins of Louisiana-born artist Denise Gallagher and her French, Creole and Cajun influences.
Gallagher’s skilled drawings, tinted in muted greens, burgundies and browns, show Peg as a hairy, unappealing girl in comparison to her slender, fine-boned sisters, but she has a determined look in her eyes and a quirky smile that shows she doesn’t worry about social conformity. The witch is a warty, craggy-faced thing, clearly evil. The drawings are complicated, and several are drawn from different perspectives, inviting scrutiny from detail-oriented children.
Peg Bearskin is delightful and fun to read. While it might be of most interest to residents of Newfoundland, all schools could benefit from having yet another account of a famous tale to show children how the same narrative can be interpreted in different ways. Peg Bearskin can be used as a catalyst for children to write their own versions of traditional tales and apply their imaginations to take them further, making them original again.
Harriet Zaidman is a children’s writer and reviewer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her novel, City on Strike, set in the turbulence of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, will be launched by Red Deer Press on April 14, 2019.