Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Hired Hand by Robert San Souci

San Souci, Robert. Ill. by Jerry Pinkney (1997). The Hired Hand. New York: Dial. ISBN 0803712960.

Old Sam and his son Young Sam own and run a saw mill in Virginia. While Old Sam is hard-working and industrious, his young son does whatever he can to cut corners on his work—not cleaning the dirt of the logs and thus dulling the saw blades, sawing the boards uneven—forcing his father to resaw them. He wouldn’t even sweep up the saw dust saying, “Get some hired hand to do that low work.”

Before long, a stranger came into town and made Old Sam an offer—if Old Sam would teach the New Hand everything he knew about sawing, the stranger would work for him for a year for free. Things worked out well in the beginning. Old Sam was good and fair to the hired hand, but Young Sam was mean to him and treated him like a servant. “The man never talked back; he just did what he was told.”

One day, an elderly customer came by complaining of miserable back pain. The New Hand told the Sams to go out into the woods and not watch as he fixed the man’s pain, warning that if either of them witnessed it, “’cause something’ bad’ll happen if you do.” But Young Sam snuck near as the New Hand performed a ritual of sawdust, water and blood. It worked. Not only had the New Hand taken away the man’s back pain, but he had also made him young. As the customer pulled away, Young Sam caught up with him and made him pay for the New Hand’s healing.

In the winter, while Old Sam was away visiting a relative, Young Sam was horrible enough to the New Hand to make him leave. Not long after that, the healed man came back with his ailing wife and Young Sam tried to repeat the New Hand’s ritual but, as usual, cut corners, killing the man’s wife. He was arrested and charged with her death.

At his trial, Young Sam repented of his ways and Old Sam begged for his son’s life. A stranger at the back of the room asked Young Sam if he was truly sorry for what he had done and recognizing the voice of the New Hand, Young Sam replied, “’Deed I am, an’ I ax pardon an’ hope you’ll forgive me.”

In response, the New Hand asked the court why Young Sam had been charged with the death of a woman who was standing there with them in the court—the man’s wife was not only alive but she was young. The judge found Young Sam not guilty. When the Sams turned to thank the New Hand, he was gone. But from then on, Young Sam was the hard-working son his father had always wanted.

According to the Author’s Note, The Hired Hand is an African-American retelling of an old European folk tale first written down by Francis Hindes Groome in his Gypsy Folk Tales. Like most folk tales there is a base in reality, a pinch magic and an overarching moral which is, in Young Sam’s own words: “Brethren and sisters, mind what I’m gonna tell you. Don’ be lazy an’ greedy an’ wood-headed. ‘Specially don’ act high-handed and biggity with no one, ‘cause if I didn’t act that way to a man who’s standin’ in this here crowd, I’d be back at the sawmill, ‘stead of headin’ to a jail cell.”

It is always difficult for someone to judge the cultural accuracy of a work produced by a culture not his or her own. Thus, I don’t feel equipped to speak to that aspect. However, I can say that from my own experience with history and literature, I found several elements of the book remarkable with regard to cultural cues. First is the language. The reduction (dropping of ‘d’s and ‘g’s at the end and some vowel sounds at the beginning of words) shown in the dialogue is typical of African-American dialect as seen in other works set in this period (just pre- and just post-slavery in the United States) as is the vocabulary (“ax,” “holler,” etc.) and grammatical errors (“ You got to pay or you won’ be young no more.”).

Other cultural markers are seen in the illustrations—soft lines filled with hushed, earthy water colors. There is not one white character, not even peripheral, in the book’s illustrations. While the Sams—obviously enough well-off to own their own business—are dressed in breeches and vests (Young Sam with suspenders), the New Hand (probably representing the freed slave) wears homespun overalls. Also, the judge in the courtroom scene is African-American. These details imply that Virginia in the 1700’s was “free” and progressive enough for African-Americans to have a place of stature, as Pinkney states in the Artist’s Note, “a sense of time when free blacks were openly a part of several colonial communities, long before the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Most importantly perhaps is the fact that the book, whether a historically accurate representation or not, whether a culturally accurate representation or not, is a good story. It doesn’t just have to be a story about how a young son of a long ago freed man—who has become spoiled by his freedom—can be taught a few things about life, honesty and integrity by the likes of a lowly, recently freed slave. It can also be read simply as good prevailing over bad—not only is everyone happy in the end, but the antagonist learns his lesson. These are some of the basic elements of a good old fashioned folktale from any culture.

In fact, it would be interesting to see what impressions children of varying ages and cultures would be. Thus, this book could simply lead to a discussion of good vs. bad (I avoid the term “evil” on purpose) or it could open a discussion of cultural impressions.

Reviews (per

Ages 5^-9. San Souci and Pinkney's latest collaboration is based on an African American folktale first recorded in 1871 by a black Virginian. Pinkney's characteristic watercolor illustrations portray one of several small Virginia towns where free blacks lived, owned property, and worked in the late 1700s. He successfully blends historically realistic details with timeless folkloric magic, and he enhances San Souci's smooth retelling in the process. An obvious choice for primary story hours, this will also make a welcome addition to African American folklore and history units.

School Library Journal:
Kindergarten-Grade 4. San Souci makes a choice in favor of "softening the heavy use of dialect," found in the original tale. Pinkney adopts a corresponding tone in his illustrations, polishing any harshness away. Pencil sketches showing through his watercolors add character and interest, but never mar the finish. The result is a first-class treat for readers' eyes and ears. However, the prettiness has a price. The beauty (each illustration perfectly composed and delivered in a charming palette of subdued colors; each bit of dialogue tastefully framed; each character devastatingly handsome) keeps drawing readers' attention back to the surface, to the elegance of the presentation. Beneath that surface, down where the folktale's dynamic themes of filial disobedience, sin and redemption, and the search for immortality all converge, is where the real power lies. Libraries looking for African-American folktales should consider this title and bask in the splendor of its delivery.

An African-American folktale from Southern oral tradition, first recorded in the late 19th century. Inspired by a small Virginia anti-slavery town for its setting and drawing from 18th-century costume with the influence of European fairy-tale art, Pinkney works his magic by blending both character and drama with the hushed tones of history.

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