Friday, August 02, 2013

The Bearskinner: A Tale of the Brothers Grimm

Another winner from Sherrie Norris!
Schlitz, L.A. (2007). The bearskinner: A tale of the brothers Grimm. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.
This week, I chose a picture book for my traditional literature reflection.  Rather, I think this book chose me because I found it resting upon “my” study table at our public library.  The beautiful illustration on the cover pulled me into its pages;  I just can’t ignore a brothers Grimm story!
  As you may notice from the title, this book is a retold tale-another version of a German fairy tale which stays true to the traditional story elements even though it has been written by a different author.  I would clarify this is not a contemporary, or modern, version of the Grimm brothers’ tale if we consider details such as the soldier travels by horseback and gold is used as the currency that fills his pockets.  Based on those observations, the setting of this story is integral because it has to happen in these woods during this time period.   However in keeping with the morose style of Grimm, Schlitz tells us a sad,  haunting story of a soldier, having nothing left after the war, makes a desperate deal with a mysterious devil. Rather than tell the story in episodes or scenes, the author uses a progressive plot to introduce the characters and then move directly to a developing conflict.  This conflict is the ultimate battle of good and evil: the honorable protagonist faces off against a devious antagonist who hopes to win another soul.  The devil demands that the soldier must wear a bearskin and follow the rules for seven years; in return, the devil will pay him untold riches.  The turning point of the story occurs when the soldier realizes that he can find some good in this awful situation through charity to others; he helps a gambler who has three beautiful daughters.  As I read, I considered what I would be willing to do for pockets full of gold, silver and gemstones.  I wondered if I could I give up my humanity just to be rich.   Sincerely, I can empathize with the soldier because I have made a bad decision or two, but I have learned from my mistakes just as this character does.  Don’t worry, even though this story is Grimm, it does have the traditional fairy tale’s resolution, a “happily ever after” ending. 
            I made notes throughout the story about the impact of the illustrations and style of writing.  The illustrator, Max Grafe, chose muted colors to complement the creepy, dark mood of the story.  The pages themselves are framed as though from an old, tattered book with rough edges and yellowed paper.  At first glance, the artistic style seems to be realistic because you can distinguish natural forms of the bear, the soldier, trees, and the devil but the dream-like quality of the sketches make these illustrations more surrealistic. The shadows and textures seem to fill the pages, especially when the devil is featured in his velvety-green coat and the soldier dons the soft, furry bearskin.  The imagery of the story is shared through such dramatic illustrations and well-written text that reaches all of your senses.  As Schlitz continues the tale and describes the soldier, the bearskin becomes rotted but Bearskinner cannot take it off.   The description of his unwashed condition, covered in lice and sores with maggots and reeking of a rotting animal skin, made me ill.  I felt sorry for this poor, desperate man and I hated the devil even more for taking advantage of the soldier’s misfortune.

           An example of my text-to-self connections happened when one of the minor characters describes the soldier, she says, "Such a fierce fellow, too! A great ugly bear of a man!”  This metaphor reminds me of my best friend's father because he was very tall and stout.  During the winter, he would grow his beard long, and I can still remember how frightening he looked to me when I was eight years old. 
           I would recommend this book for older students who can appreciate the abstract story elements; it might be difficult for younger readers to truly grasp the Bearskinner’s sadness and the opportunistic evil of the devil.  With that in mind, the curriculum connection for an English or Language Arts class would be to focus on characterization by analyzing how the author reveals the courageous Bearskinner and his awful enemy through appearance, actions, thoughts, dialogue, and interactions with other characters.  This story lends itself to a discussion about a character’s motivation as well.  Some questions to consider: How is the soldier going to survive this deal with the devil?  Is he strong enough to endure the physical and mental hardships of wearing the bear’s skin in order to reap the extrinsic reward?  If you had to switch places with the Bearskinner, would you?  What would you do differently if you were the protagonist in the story?  What motivates us?

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