While tidying my bookshelves, I found my copy of the poet, H W Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Donkey’s years ago, when I was probably between the ages of 5 and 9 , my Mother introduced me to Hiawatha. My Mum enjoyed poetry, and had a copy of the book. She read aloud to me, and I loved the rhythmic sing-song cadence of the poem, especially the lines:
On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea water.
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset.
For years I mistakenly thought the poem was written in rhyming couplets, but after re-reading, I discover it is not. In fact, the metre of Hiawatha is borrowed from a Finnish collection of poems that Longfellow had studied. The lines are unrhymed … notwithstanding this, the lines have a simple flowing rhythm. This explanation is from the introduction by D C Browning, to my 1960 J M Dent & Sons (London) edition, in The Children’s Illustrated Classics series.
I picked up my copy 6 years ago, while on a tour to Matjiesfontein, of all places! Matjiesfontein is a tiny, quaint , restored Victorian village in the middle of the South African Karoo. The little village came to prominence during the Anglo Boer War, but these days it is a prime tourist destination for history buffs, and travellers seeking a jolly good lunch en route up the N1 to Johannesburg. In the souvenir shop there were two bookcases, which I dived into, and to my joy, there was Hiawatha.
The paper jacket is remarkably intact, given that the book was published in 1960. Insects have nibbled a few holes in the jacket, but all in all, for a 50+ year old book, it’s not bad. The pages are foxed, and there’s a musty smell, despite my airing the book in the sun on a windy Cape summer’s day.
It’s a ‘proper book’ in that it has a hardcover, which has a repeat woodblock print pattern of an Indian brave in feathered war bonnet on the inside. And best of all: there are two-colour line drawings on every page of the text, drawn by Joan Kiddell-Monroe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Kiddell-Monroe. As you can see from the photos in this post, the drawings are simple and elegant.
I think it must have been my early introduction to Hiawatha that led to my interest in the American West. Which was odd, considering I was a child with a British Colonial heritage and lifestyle, growing up in Central Africa. Or possibly it was the influence of the exciting black and white spaghetti Westerns that I was very occasionally taken to see; but only if I’d been good.
In my teen years I devoured every single Western that Zane Grey wrote – and he wrote over 90 of them*. I loved every page. Men were men, and women were glad of it. The horses were magnificent and the villains were real baddies. Nothing complicated. You knew where you were. Right would triumph after tests and trials, and the lone ranger would ride off into the sunset. *His book sales numbered 40 million ! (thanks, Wikipedia).
My Western phase petered out after my Zane Grey teens, but was revived with gusto with the advent of Sheriff Walt Longmire onto our TV screens about 4 years ago. This time we were looking at the modern West – murder and robberies, Indians on The Rez (reservation) gambling casinos, domestic dramas, and Lou Diamond Philips as the impassive Standing Bear, sidekick and friend of said Sheriff. I’m hooked all over again.
Quite what H W Longfellow (an American poet and academic in the Victorian era) would make of the modern shenanigans in the West, I shudder to think. No more exploits of hunting, fishing, physical prowess, warring, battling with the winds, wooing the fair Minnehahha . Modern Westerns are much grittier, and far less mythical. It looks as if childhood discoveries through poetry have influenced me at different stages of my life. I’m glad Mum introduced me to Hiawatha!