If there’s one thing that maddens Prince Rashko, it’s his family. When his parents blithely leave their virtually unprotected castle in order to attend a fairy-hosted fete, the responsibility of holding down the fort falls into the hands of Rashko and his dippy brother Paulek, who would sooner sword fight and admire wildlife than defend the castle.
Seizing an opportunity, the lecherous Baron Temny, his wicked daughter and their henchmen arrive at the castle gates and set up camp with no intention of leaving peacefully. Unsure how to defend his home, Rashko seeks solace in the legend of his ancestor, Pavol, who surmounted equal obstacles with the help of an enchanting secret arsenal—an arsenal that Rashko just might have to retrieve from the castle’s basement to save his once-peaceful home.
With Dragon Castle, Joseph Bruchac departs from his familiar territory of Native America in order to tell the fresh and funny Slovakian-inspired story of Rashko. Here he talks heroes, sidekicks and feigning foolishness.
Find other laugh-out-loud-funny books among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
What prompted the switch from Native American material to something Slovakian? Have you found similarities between the two?
I'm a person of mixed ancestry. My Native blood is entirely on my mother side. Both of my father's parents came from the area of Turnava in Slovakia. I am deeply interested in the European side of my family, but until now most of what I've had published that relates to Slovakia has been in the form of poems.
I do feel a real connection between certain Eastern European traditions, especially Slovakian, and Native Americans. My grandmother often said "We Slovaks were the Indians of Europe." And my grandfather preferred to pray in the forest rather than in a church. The Bruchac family, I've discovered, was known as a clan of hunters and forest guides in Slovakia. There's also a deep connection between Slovaks and animals that is similar to that of the Abenakis. Also, in the old days in Europe, before the Industrial Revolution, Eastern European people lived close to the earth and understood it in ways very similar to the ways of Native Americans.
The legend of Pavol reveals more to Rashko about himself than he anticipated. What legend or story has helped you more clearly see yourself?
There is a type of story that is found in both Eastern Europe and in much of Native America. The general motif is that the main character is a person who is overlooked or laughed at because he is small, weak and seems foolish to everyone. But that person is one who has listened well to stories and to the wisdom of the elders. So, when a crisis comes, that small, seemingly insignificant person is the only one who knows what to do.
I loved those stories when I was a kid—probably because I was undersized and often bullied until my last years in high school, when I had a growing spurt. Those stories gave me hope, something that all too many kids are short on these days. Pavol, in the back story of Dragon Castle, is a hero who fits into that mode.
Pavol initially has to feign foolishness to protect his greatness. Is there a public figure out there you hope is doing the same?
I do believe that in national politics there is an anti-intellectual mood that does lead to some people trying to appear more "common" and "down-to-earth" than they really are so that they can appeal to the electorate. I'm afraid that all too often the foolishness we see in all too many public figures is far from feigned, but a measure of who they are and what their ideas, or lack of them, amount to. As far as naming a public figure displaying that sort of foolishness, take your pick.
Jedovaty the talking donkey provides comedy in otherwise grim situations. Who is your favorite sidekick?
The motif of the talking horse or donkey is found throughout Eastern European folklore. Making him initially bad-natured and sarcastic was more or less my own idea. In any event, I do love sidekicks in general—especially when that sidekick is not just a foil for the hero. My favorite sidekick? Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's astute Cockney servant and one of Dickens' finest creations. Though it was the first novel by Dickens, it is still one of my favorites, in large part due to Sam.
Rashko eventually realizes that his half-wit family might be more than meets the eye. Have you had such an epiphany?
I think that you might see Rashko as typical of most teenagers in his less-than-favorable impression of his parents. I can reference Mark Twain here, who remarked on how much more intelligent his parents became after he grew up. I had that sort of epiphany about my grandfather—whom I always loved but whose wisdom I failed to appreciate until after I had gone to college and then on to three years as a volunteer teacher in Ghana.
When my wife and I returned to the States and moved in with him, time and time again I found myself remembering times I'd felt superior to him in the past. And it made me want to just kick myself for being an arrogant adolescent. For example, he ran a little general store and would let anyone "buy" things on credit, even when it was clear to me that they had no intention of ever paying up. I thought he was being taken advantage of. It was only years later when I understood the deeper meaning of what he said when I asked him why he was being so trusting: "It hurts more not to trust."