Friday, July 25, 2008

"Why Brother Bear Has No Tail" by Joel Chandler Harris

Source: Lit2Go
Length: 8 minutes
Reader: Rick Kistner

The story: This story, also known as "Why Brer Bear Has No Tail" is a tale about a tail within a tale - a young white boy, son of a plantation owner, goes to find entertainment in the cabin of Uncle Remus, a former slave. Watching the boy trying to act "grown up", Remus tells him a story about Brother Bear trying to imitate the smaller animals in a game of sliding down slippery rocks in a creek. But Bear is too large for this pastime and as a result loses his beautiful tail.

For such a simple story, this is a complex narrative to analyze. In addition to the stated moral that people should take care when they try to imitate others, there is the additional complexity of this being a story told by a poor black man to a rich white boy. Is it a story about the consequences of acting outside one's place or is it about the big and powerful getting his comeuppance? If it's the first, then Remus may be warning the boy about stepping outside his social strata. If it's the second, then Remus may be telling the boy that those in power can meet their downfall by the brains of the weak.

The ambiguity of the story reflects the ambiguity of the author, or more accurately, the man who put the folktales to paper. Was Joel Chandler Harris mocking Uncle Remus in the spirit of minstrels? Or was he more akin to an anthropologist chronicling African-American folklore for later generations? I'll weasel out of the questions of about the story and its writer by answering to both: "it's a little of each".

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This story is written in dialect, so reading it aloud is really the best way to understand it. Kistner acts the part of Uncle Remus with great skill - his accent and pacing are similar to many old Southern men I've known. His reading does an excellent job of making the words understandable -- or at least understandable to me, since I'm a Southerner who has heard words like "chimbley" and "turkle" from my grandma. I reckon that non-Southerners will find it thicker than a day-old mess of grits.

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