Friday, June 14, 2013

Traditional Tale Review: SWAMP ANGEL, by Anne Isaacs

Isaacs, Anne.  1994. Swamp Angel. New York, NY: Dutton Books.
ISBN 0-525-45271-0


Swamp Angel is an original tall tale, the first book by Anne Isaacs.  In this book, Angelica Longrider is born in Tennessee and, in traditional tall tale fashion, she builds a log cabin at age two and saves a group of wagons from sinking in a swamp when she was 12 just by plucking their wagons out of the swamp like twigs, earning her the name of Swamp Angel.  When a giant bear known as Terrible Tarnation starts eating all the food from the winter food cellars of the region, a competition is declared to see who can get this bear’s hide.  Swamp Angel signs up, only smiling at the men teasing her about making pies or mending a quilt.  The men are defeated by the bear in short order, but Angel fights that bear for a long time, throwing him into the sky and using a tornado to rope him.  They wrestle and fight even in their sleep—and their snores knock down tree after tree.  In the end, one last giant snore knocks a tree right down on that bear, flattening it, so Swamp Angel wins the competition.  People refill their pantries on bear pies, bear roasts and more.  Angel keeps the pelt for a rug.


It is delightful to have a tall tale with a strong female character, moving beyond Paul Bunyan or even Pecos Bill's one true love, Slue-foot Sue.  The language here is appropriate to traditional tales, such as, “She roped that bristled bandit and brought him crashing back to earth.”   This is not a retelling of any other tale, but her lush language makes it feel like a traditional tale passed down through the Tennessee mountain folk.  It offers explanations of the Smokey Mountains, the Shortgrass Prairie in Montana and the constellation of the Bear.   

The art is perfect for the story.  Award-winning Paul O. Zelinsky uses warm wood panel backgrounds suggestive of early America and the forests of Tennessee.  Multiple scenes are often woven throughout one page, significantly fleshing out the tale.  The excessive size of Swamp Angel and the bear compared to other characters in the book supports the text well.  The illustrations drive home the point that this is a tall tale, not a true story, despite the lines, “To this day, stories about Swamp Angel spring up like sunflowers along the wagon trails.  And every one of them is true.”  The wink-nod of the tall tale comes through loud and clear in this amusing and bold tale of a woman who refused to be held back by the common expectations of her culture.  Our textbook, Children's Literature in Action, describes tall tales as, "exaggerated narratives containing oversized boisterous characters, humorous actions and picturesque language, often set in special regions..." (84).  Swamp Angel certainly meets that criteria.


“With its good-natured, larger-than-life heroine and broad, fanciful paintings, this original Tennessee tall tale is exhilarating and side-splittingly funny.” – School Library Journal, Nov 1, 1997

“Zelinsky’s (Rumpelstiltkin) stunning American-primitive oil paintings, set against an unusual background of cherry, maple and birch veneers, frankly steal the show here.  Their success, however, does not diminish the accomplishment of Isaacs, whose feisty tall tale marks an impressive picture-book debut.” – Publishers Weekly, Oct 3, 1994

“Zelinsky’s detailed oil paintings in folk-art style are exquisite, framed in cherry, maple and birch wood grains.  They are also hilarious, making brilliant use of perspective to extend the mischief and the droll understatement.” – Booklist, Oct 1, 1994.


  • This book could be paired with Anne Isaacs other book, Dust Devil, which has literary language just as delightful to read aloud as Swamp Angel.

  •  For a study of tall tales, this book could be matched with Steven Kellogg’s Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, along with Doa Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart, by Pat Mora.  There are other female tall tale heroines as well.

  •  For a theme about bears, it would be fun to read any version of I’m Going on a Bear Hunt and then complete it with the Bear Hunt finger play, especially to compare the brave, confident reactions of Swamp Angel during HER bear hunt, compared to the way the family flees in the book of I'm Going on a Bear Hunt.  


I love Anne Isaacs.  I had never read Swamp Angel, but I had read Dust Devil a long time ago.  Her writing is simply superb, with the kind of original similes, metaphors and hyperbole that I admire tremendously.  She makes it look easy to come up with original turns of phrases, but anyone who has spent time on the craft of writing knows it is often not easy at all.

This book review was written for LS 5603, TWU.

Works Referenced

Isaacs, Anne.  2010.  Dust Devil.  New York, NY:  Random House Children’s Books.

Kellogg, Steven.  1985.  Paul Bunyan.  Logan, IA:  Perfection Learning Company.

Kellogg, Steven.  2008.  Johnny Appleseed.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins Publishers.

Mora, Pat.  2005.  Doῆa Flor:  A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart.  New York, NY:  Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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