Preparing for this summer's library programs reminded me of the fun I had last year, telling Jack tales to children at libraries across West Virginia. These old tales find new fans of all ages regularly, and it’s no wonder. There is something for every listener in a well-crafted story and Jack tales, with their long history of being passed down from generation to generation, are a fine example of the importance of oral tradition.
Almost everyone knows Jack and the Beanstalk, of course but listeners are often surprised to find that this boy had many other adventures, from tricking robbers to trapping mountain lions to outwitting ogres and kings, and even winning the hand of a princess or two. These stories traveled with the early settlers to our mountains and found a comfortable home here, losing some of the British characteristics and adding mountain humor, vocabulary and craftiness to Jack’s personality.
Jack’s Hunting Trip is a good example of these tales. Jack got his trusty gun, his powder and shot and his gamebag, and off he went a–huntin’. Had a fine day, filled his gamebag full before lunch. Then he sat down to eat on his favorite rock. Had a bag of peaches, ate them all, throwing the pits on the ground. Looked up and saw the biggest buck deer he’d ever clapped eyes on.
Went to shoot it, but had no more shot, just powder was all. Picked up some peach pits and used them in place of the shot, rammed ‘em down his barrel, took aim and fired. Peach pits bounced all over the deer but he just shook his head and run off. Jack went home told everyone about that big buck but didn’t no one believe him, because Jack was always making up stories like that.
Went back the next year, sat on his favorite rock to eat and saw a tree just full of peaches right in front of him. Jack disremembered any such tree being there but he loved peaches so he was right glad to see it. Climbed up in its branches and commenced to picking peaches and putting them in his gamebag. All of a sudden that tree stood up!
Jack realized what had happened was one of them peach pits he’d fired at the buck last year had lodged between the deer’s antlers and took root and was growing right there. That buck realized something was wrong and shook his head, hard. Jack went flying off down the side of the mountain but he never dropped a one of those peaches in his gamebag. Took ‘em on home, and that night his mama made peach cobbler for dinner. Last I heard, Jack and his mama were still doin’ right well.
In a longer tale called Jack and Old Fire Dragaman, Jack and his brothers Will and Tom build a log cabin. In telling this story, I have been able to introduce children to tools that might have been used for cabin- building: two-man saw, drawknife, broadaxe, froe, hatchet, cant hook, froe and so on. There is also the vocabulary: a puncheon floor, daubing up a chimney, etc. While the stories are entertaining to listen to (or read) there is an education in old-time ways and language contained in their pages. Next time you visit your library, ask for a book of Jack tales. They are part of our Appalachian heritage and as good as anything you’ll read this year.
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.