THE WHISTLING SKELETON: American Indian Tales of the Supernatural by John--Ed. Bierhorst

THE WHISTLING SKELETON: American Indian Tales of the Supernatural

Email this review


Nine folk tales from the Pawnee, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne, each containing an element of the supernatural. The first, title story, which comes closest to our expectations of a ghost story, tells of a man pursued by the skeleton of a woman after he has inadvertently camped beside her bones. An eerier shocker has to do with a sought-after chief's daughter who elopes with a stranger and wakes up in a hollow tree to find that he and his tribespeople are rats. In other stories an orphan boy, a baby abandoned by his mother, a boy killed by his father, and a man trapped by his two bad wives are helped by wolves, a deer, or a community of ""medicine animals."" The benevolent instructions given by these animals can be as mysterious as those found in European folk tales. (The orphan boy who helped a wolf with her young is told to follow all of his people's hunting parties three days late and to sing a certain wolf song as he goes. By obeying these directions, he is able to see in the dark and consequently to thrive.) Bierhorst's introduction points to the information the stories give about the tribes' customs and mentions some applicable beliefs, such as the unlucky connotations of the number seven (so that when the story has seven men ride out, we know there is trouble ahead). Most suggestively, Bierhorst also offers a reading of one of the more mysterious stories, showing how structure relates to meaning. In the story, a little girl is taken by a ghost who would cook and eat her, but is sheltered by an old man until she is 17. He then sends her home dressed as a boy, with a stopover at the lodge of an old witch who will also try to kill her. The stories are interesting in themselves and in relation to their culture, and provocative as specimens for older readers. Parker's watercolors, though pleasing, are less interesting--and the most effective, which illustrate the title story, contradict the storyteller's description of the skeleton; but the book design overall makes an attractive package.

Pub Date: July 9th, 1982
Publisher: Four Winds