Friday, June 14, 2013

Traditional Tale Review: GLUSKABE AND THE FOUR WISHES, by Joseph Bruchac

Bruchac, Joseph.  1995. Gluskabe and the Four Wishes. Ill. by Christine Nyburg Shrader.  New York, NY: Cobblehill Books, a division of Penguin.   
ISBN 0-525-65164-0

In this retelling of a traditional tale of the Wabanaki peoples of New England (which includes five Abenaki-speaking Native Nations), the spirit-helper Gluskabe had retired to a remote island, where the smoke from his pipe formed fog all around it.  Anyone brave enough to find him could ask for a wish.  Four men decide to go to Gluskabe’s island to ask for a wish.  Each one wants something selfish, except the last man, who wants only to know how to be a better hunter so he can provide for his family and his people.  The four men use skills related to their desires to navigate the trip and make their wish.  They are each given a pouch with their wish inside, but are told they must wait until they are home to open it.  The first three do not wait, and end up with their wish fulfilled in ironically unhappy ways.  The fourth man follows the rules and when he opens the pouch, he understands the ways of animals and, "From that day on he was the best hunter among the people.  He never took more game than was needed, yet he always provided enough to feed his people.  His was truly the best of the gifts given by Gluskabe."


Bruchac includes an introduction to his retelling that indicates just how carefully he has studied this traditional tale and how much he values cultural authenticity.  In his Author's Note, he shares that he is of Native American descent himself, specifcally Western Abenaki, and has studied Native elders performing storytelling. He is motivated to be accurate and authentic.

This version of the folktale definitely fulfills the common traits found in a traditional tale.  The book makes clear that he is retelling this tale; he is not the original author.  Because these are tales meant to be told aloud, they should roll easily off the tongue.  In Bruchac's case, his language very much sounds like a story being told around a blazing campfire, with a voice rising and falling out of the darkness, saying:  "They say the fog which rises out of there is actually the smoke from Gluskabe's pipe.  It is said that for a time Gluskabe let it be known to the world that anyone who came to him would be granted one wish."  Then the story moves right into action with, "Once there were four Abenaki men who decided to make the journey to visit Gluskabe."    

It is common for European fairy tales and folktales to have patterns of three, but common in Native American cultures to have patterns of four, as seen here with four men.  Thus, there is a distinctive rhythm to the story, with four trials to pass through, four wishes made, four wishes granted, but only one with a happy ending.  The ending holds a clear moral, the simple truth about life that you’d better be careful what you ask for.  The storyline is straight-forward, with flat, stereotyped characters, as is common in a traditional tale.  For example, traditional literature is described in the text Children’s Literature in Action, “It is simple and direct, with a fast-moving plot and stock characters they [children] immediately recognize” (76). 

Dr. Vardell, the author of Children’s Literature in Action, also says, “The art of the folktale should also reflect careful study of the root culture,” (78) and I think that has been accomplished with this book, both with the text and the art.  The art is painterly, possibly using pastels or water-colors as the medium, full of natural, Earth-toned colors.  The men are clearly dressed in traditional Native American clothing, even though there are not many details in the images and we must be sure to not stereotype Native Americans as all looking like these particular men (94). Gluskabe himself is portrayed with white hair in long braids. The most significant moment in the storyline is awarded a two-page wordless illustration that is full of the warm colors and natural textures so associated with Native American culture.


“With graceful insight, Bruchac retells this legend of his ancestors…With no loss of entertainment value, the story is highly moral, eschewing selfishness and materialism in favor of selflessness and harmony with the natural world.”—Booklist.  (ages 4-8)

“Plainly told yet suspenseful, the story breaths an easy authenticity.  First-time illustrator Shrader’s atmospheric if slightly muddy paintings convey some of the drama, but the exaggerated expressions of her characters undercut the conviction of Bruchac’s narrative voice.” – Publisher’s Weekly (ages 4-8)

“Bruchac is a master storyteller, and his talent is amply displayed in this retelling of an Abenaki tale. The text is lean and elegant, without an extraneous word, and the gentle, easy cadence lends itself to reading aloud; even the source note sings. … A worthy addition to any collection.”  -- School Library Journal  (grades 3-6)


  • This book could be paired other traditional tales from Native American culture, such as The Rough-Face Girl by R. Martin.
  • This book could spur a craft activity of making a simple pouch (even out of construction paper,  having previously hole-punched it and letting children “sew” it shut with yarn) and drawing a picture of a wish and putting it in the pouch.
  • This could be easily dramatized in a reader’s theatre, with four children being the men, another child being Gluskabe, and the librarian being the narrator/reader. 

I enjoyed learning a new folktale for a specific tribal group, but I did not enjoy the art as much as I wanted to.  I felt that she was clearly trying to portray a realistic image of them, but failing somewhat (the reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put into words what I was unable to when writing my review. I always wait to read the professional reviews until after I have written my own review.)  I thought the artist's best work was the image of Gluskabe himself. 
This book review was written for LS 5603, TWU.
Works Referenced:

Martin, R.  1998.  The Rough-Face Girl.  New York, NY:  Philomel.  
Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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