Review: Rootabaga Stories

I heard of Rootabaga Stories from Robert Charles Wilson’s strong story “Fireborn” in Mashup, which is based on a line from one. Carl Sandburg wrote the collection for his children and subsequently published them.  The stories are Sandburg’s conception of what American fairy tales should be.  One of the first salient points Sandburg addresses is to underline the class mobility and fairness that are part of the American mythos by removing references to royalty.  It is pretty telling that these are hardly recognizable as fairy tales without kings and princesses.

Sandburg builds a world of echoes from his beloved American midwest that holds wide open expanses, robust cities, and mighty trains that connect them.  Typing that, it strikes me how well that reflects the structure of Grimm’s milieu with respect to Europe’s idealized past.  America’s idealized past is one of great plains compared to Europe’s dark forests.  Democratic cities form instead of serf-built castles.  Names are foggy echoes of what Americans imagine First Nations names to sound like, cross bred with Midwestern slang rather than Olde-Time-y European sounds.  Again, this shows the structure of Sandburg’s project.

Story to story Sandburg keeps enough consistency to solidify the world without being a slave to it. The result is a grounded Oz, if that makes any sense.  It is a remarkable and quirky example of world-building.  It’s easy to see why Wilson was inspired by it.

As befits an icon of American poetry, the language of these stories is unique and powerful.  The phrasing of his descriptions are singular without being self-consciously poetic. They stand alone without being obviously from Sandburg while on reflection they clearly bear his stamp.  Even if one finds the contents of the stories contrived or twee – which I don’t, but understand – Sandburg’s language rings.


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