We Minnesotans love tall tales—especially ones about Paul Bunyan. Kids read about how his huge feet supposedly stomped out our 10,000 lakes and how the giant chopped down thousands of trees with one ax stroke. The communities of Bemidji and Brainerd boast the largest statues of this lumberjack and his blue ox Babe, but other Minnesota towns also will be celebrating on June 28, now officially Paul Bunyan Day. It is not clear which city official or marketing professional dreamed up this holiday, which might even have begun in Maine, our state’s biggest competitor for Bunyan fame.
While individual states stake claims to particular tall tale heroes, such folk lore figures are found throughout America’s landscape. This phenomenon provides one lens through which to view a recent, highly-anticipated graphic novel, Cathy Malkasian’s Eartha (2017). Its titular central figure—the gentle giant Eartha—is as good-natured and righteous as Paul Bunyan and all his kind. She charges off to help others and fight villains as unselfishly and quickly as any legendary hero. Yet if we use only this lens we will distort author/illustrator Malkasian’s creation, which contains a more complicated world-view than the typical tall tale.
As award-winning Malkasian notes at her website, her graphic novels “explore characters and ideas . . . . They can be disturbing, sad, silly, confusing, and even subtle.” Or, as Malkasian wryly notes in her author biography on amazon.com, her books are “intended for adults, despite any information to the contrary.” I would unreservedly add teens (and some mature tweens) to readers who would appreciatively read Eartha. However, a potential confusion of the appropriate audience for Malkasian’s graphic novels may come from her distinctive visual style, choice of genres, and economical storytelling. Taken together, they might erroneously suggest that Eartha is a work for younger readers.
In this graphic novel, pencil drawings in muted colors emphasize emotions in the features of softly-shaded, cartoon-like characters. This expressiveness extends to the talking cat which is a major character in this fantastic saga, set on a world divided between the rural community of Echo Fjord, Eartha’s home, and the City Across the Sea. Folks still plow with oxen in Echo Fjord, which until recently has been the destination and resting place for physical manifestations of city-dwellers’ unrealized dreams. When Eartha bravely sets out for the City, she takes a rowboat. The highest level of technology in Echo Fjord is its massive drain pipes, while the City—with its stone and off-kilter stucco buildings reminiscent of 19th century Europe—deploys broadcast and aeronautical technology typical of the 1920s and ‘30s. Malkasian depicts a world outside of conventional time and history, where even the moon seems part of a fairy tale, oblong in shape over the Fjord but looming round over the City and its seaside.
This fairy tale mode—with its presumptive audience of younger readers—is further suggested by the many wordless panels Malkasian uses to convey action. Shifts in perspective among these finely detailed images as well as their sequence are telling. For instance, when she sets out for the City, we see low, close views of determined Eartha as she drops into and wades along the reservoir leading to a drainage outlet. The giant hero fills each of these panels. When Eartha then slides into its long chute to reach the sea, we see her from behind and at a distance. Next, close-ups show Eartha straining to row the boat she luckily finds, struggling too not to capsize it. As she rows onward, side and overhead views drawn from a distance dramatically show how even enormous Eartha is dwarfed by the sea’s vastness.
Furthermore, dialogue when used is relatively brief. Although such style is characteristic of picture books and other graphic works for younger readers, the flaws and problems of the City-dwellers are ones that bedevil adults (including lust and emotional longing)—and the city-wide crisis that has cut short their dreams is one endemic to the 21st century. Malkasian critiques aspects of human nature and satirizes social trends in ways that—given that Eartha was completed before President Trump’s election—eerily echo today’s headlines, sound-bites, and Tweets.
City dwellers’ greed and need for social status are shown in their willingness to trade all belongings, including mementos of their loved ones, for what now substitutes for money in their world: biscuits stamped with the latest news! These supposed bulletins are all just four words long, and absurdly juxtapose nouns and verbs to describe disasters such as “Corn accident mauls has-been.” The wealthiest citizens are the plumpest, prominently gorging on biscuits in public as they loudly bemoan the news they compulsively swallow. These characters do not see the irony in the City’s biscuit-news motto, displayed under its largest radio receiver, “The World in a Bite.” They are like many people these days (such as President Trump) who cannot stay away from social media and 24-hour a day news stations. In a recent interview, Malkasian confirmed this inspiration, saying “I’m really worried about addictive technologies and social media. I’m really concerned about what it’s doing to people’s brains and outlooks.”
Ironically, given our president’s charges about official news organizations spreading “fake news,” it is those Tweet-like cookies which are phony. That gigantic radio receiver does not work! The cookies are the brainchild of a successful (if unhappy) baking magnate whose minions terrorize City dwellers as they bilk them of their possessions. The rule of law in the City has become “Acquisition is Justice.” As the United States’ chief executive today uses his business experience to gauge and set public policy, along the way tweeting unsubstantiated accusations about people and groups, the absurdities in this novel begin to seem frighteningly less fantastic and more probable.
In Eartha, Malkasian resolves these problems with a fairy-tale like dovetailing of several plots, revealing connections and family relationships that aid gentle giant Eartha in her quest. She is able to help free the City from its web of deceitful news and return triumphantly to Echo Fjord and her true love Maybelle, to a world where now not just acquisition but “everything mattered.” These are the feel-good, if ambiguous, last words on the novel’s last page, depicting a snoozing Eartha as she pillows snoring Maybelle and their noisily slumbering friend Old Lloyd. They are content, even if readers are left to wonder about the ultimate impact of epitaphs, with their supposed end-of-life insights, that now blanket City streets in paper bulletins. Will people there take these sometimes cryptic messages to heart, and strive for more authentic goals than social prestige and wealth? We do not know for sure. It is a kind of hopefully uncertain ending that will resonate best with older readers.
For those seeking more clear-cut conclusions and purely humorous tales, this month readers young and old might relish several delightful picture book additions to Paul Bunyan’s legend: The Bunyans (1996; 2006), written by award-winning Audrey Wood and illustrated by David Shannon, details the adventures of Paul, his wife Carrie McIntie, and their two enormous children. Minnesota author Marybeth Lorbiecki posits a different, bigger-than-life true love for Paul in Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart (2007; 2011), illustrated by Renee Graef. There, gigantic Lucette Diana Kensack’s part – Ojibwe heritage is added to the tale. And another Minnesota author, Phyllis Root, creates a “little” sister for Paul in Paula Bunyan (2009), illustrated by Kevin O’Malley. Little Paula is only as tall as a pine tree!
Happy Paul Bunyan Day—and happy reading each and every day!