This entertaining collection, which was left unpublished in 1929 and only recently unearthed, is a fine companion to Hurston’s earlier volumes, Tell My Horse (1937) and Mules and Men (1935).
The late (1891–1960) author of the classic novels Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God was also a knowledgeable folklorist, as we learn again from John Edgar Wideman’s tributory foreword and Editor Kaplan’s informative introduction. The latter discusses Hurston’s energetic research into indigenous tales and legends, supported by minimal grants, the WPA, and a wealthy white patron. The stories themselves—ranging from single-sentence utterances to fully detailed and developed anecdotes—are arranged in 17 specific categories focusing on such subjects as gender relations (“Women Tales”); racial inequity and enmity (“Massa and White Folks Tales”); creation stories, many akin to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories (“Talking Animal Tales”); and several varieties of folk supernaturalism (“God Tales,” “Devil Tales”). Frequent use of racial epithets and dialect reminiscent of minstrel shows will probably offend many contemporary readers, but are indisputable evidence of the authenticity of Hurston’s presentations: in almost every case of stories she heard directly from ordinary people, many of them illiterate. There is inevitable repetition, but not as much as one might expect. And there are many pleasures: impudent alternative versions of familiar biblical tales and good-natured mockery of religious truisms (“What in the hell does …[an] angel need with … [Jacob’s] ladder when he’s got wings”); sly references to racial imperatives (a black man falling off a roof notices he’s about to land on a white woman—“so he turnt right roun’ and fell back upon dat house”); a ribald explanation of why women don’t serve in the army, and several clever one-liners about the physical (and marital) problems encountered by snails.
A rich harvest of native storytelling.