A Tale of “Tall”

I did threaten to go on at greater length about my story in the Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered anthology. I do like to carry through on threats:

As is probably obvious from its title, “Tall” sprang from my interest in American tall tales. In the beginning, that’s all I knew I wanted to work with. I thought there was something intriguing about these wildly fantastic stories told in a very colloquial voice. It gave the miraculous an everyday quality, which in turn had me wondering just what it might be like if the hyperbolic reality of tall tales really was everyday.

Since I had no further notions than that, at first I just started collecting. I wanted to see what kinds of patterns emerged. It didn’t take long to start noticing them. There were, for example, a lot of larger than life stories about people who were literally larger than life. Not only Paul Bunyan, but Joe Magarac, Old Stormalong, even John Henry in some versions of that story, were giants: men larger, stronger, and tougher than their fellows.

Speaking of John Henry, though, what I didn’t notice a lot of were women or people of color. And when I did find them, they didn’t tend to fare nearly as well as their Caucasian counterparts. John Henry, after all, dies on the heels of his own success. The only Native American character showing up in these sorts of stories, Sam Hide, was literally only noteworthy to the storytellers for being a drunk and a liar.

I knew at that point I wanted to foreground both women and POC in the story itself. That they were largely invisible in these tales — and poorly treated by them when they did show up — was exactly why I thought I should be telling this story from their point of view.

One of the abuses I found most outrageous was the tale of Pecos Bill’s true love, Slue Foot Sue. A miraculously-talented wrangler in her own right, Sue winds up bouncing non-stop from her overgrown hoop skirts after having the audacity to think she (who managed to wrangle a giant catfish, let’s remember) might ride Bill’s horse. There are vaguely sanitized versions where Sue lives but gives up on all this cowboy stuff after Bill finally rescues her, but the version that lodged in my mind and wouldn’t let go involves Bill having to kill his love for her own good.

We’ll let that one sink in a minute. Seriously, Pecos Bill, to end the suffering of that foolish woman he decided to marry, put her down like a lame horse.

I absolutely had to take that story on directly.

Elsie seemed like the perfect point of view character to face the inherent problems with the source material. She’s a Native American girl who was culturally “overwritten” by these over the top, Caucasian narratives. In a world where giants trample along, and men pretty literally bend the world to their will, hers is the story of the ways in which someone might try to survive such a world and, maybe, re-write that overblown primary narrative. There’s power to be found in those places where the men aren’t looking. Between the trenches dug by sad giants and the deserts born of men’s pride and hubris, were other options, other people, who had powerful stories to tell.

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