Under the Cover: The Mother Goose Letters

We can all probably remember at least one of the classic Mother Goose stories from childhood. But don’t be mistaken: these ain’t your grammy’s fairy tales. Karen Clavelle’s The Mother Goose Letters(At Bay Press) is a retelling that sees these classic characters and stories as they migrate to a more contemporary time and place on the Prairies, complete with wonderful illustrations by Bob Haverluck.


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My premise in The Mother Goose Letters was that the quintessential imaginary (British) story-teller, migrated to the Canadian prairies and brought her stories with her. The Mother Goose of the “Letters” recognizes that if her stories are to survive, they need to change to reflect the time, place, and values more contemporaneous to the present time than the British past from which they derived. The Mother Goose tales and rhymes are primarily set in Britain, yet, they have an extensive literary history of travelling the world over, and they continue to do so without even a cursory nod in the direction of any of the places in which they have arrived in the pockets and bags of migrants and settlers and their ancestors.But, perhaps best to let the Goose have her own say on the question of “why the prairies?”
“Why not the prairies?” she might cackle in full ruffle and then, assiduous, and with great forbearance, albeit with an accompanying goosey eye-roll, pontificate. (She is a goose: she can pontificate.) Isn’t it about time, she might ask, that the stories we carry with us from childhood and beyond, actively reflect the home place we know or come to know as we set down our roots – migrants to the prairie place, all but a few.As much as the Mother Goose tales and rhymes warrant change of geographical setting, they also warrant revision on the social plane because they exemplify to perfection the litany of complaints flying across 21st– century social media, something that does not escape the Mother Goose at hand. The traditional Mother Goose rhymes and tales alike lack diversity in terms of gender, culture, and religion; they are intolerant, politically insensitive, and misogynist; they glorify bullying; they mock anyone and everyone from kings to politicians to lecherous millers to thieving children; they are not current, they tell old stories. Moreover, activists (the Goose would note) are shredding historical figures, toppling statues, and demanding change. It’s a list we all know. “No thing,” she would wag, “under the sun is new.”The Mother Goose Letters offers a vernacular version of prairie history, satirical anecdotes and revisions of Mother Goose rhymes and recuperated fairy tales. It constructs prairie place from common expectations of “Eden” influenced by the “boosters” as it plays with imagined stereotypical versions of the prairies (for instance, the prairies are “flat.” Period).The question remains: “why the prairies?” Because it caught the author’s fancy to imagine Mother Goose and her characters in the prairie place (that is, characters in migration), as in-comers suffering the vicissitudes of adapting to the prairie place on many planes, as in-comers have over much of the past 200 years. Because she loves prairies as place and as state of mind – almost down to the last mosquito….  * * *
Karen Clavelle won the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Writer (2018) for IOLAIRE (Turnstone 2017), a Long Poem inspired by the historical “IOLAIRE Disaster” of 1919. Her work on the Long Poem, migration, and exploration narratives of the Canadian North has led her to give talks and readings in Scotland, Spain, and Canada, including The Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival (2018). Other publications include collectors’ editions of BiRDSONG (atelier 78, 2018) and Seasons (At Bay, 2017-19), with a loose-bound edition forthcoming, 2020. Karen is presently working on a collection of poems set in an imagined, small, prairie town.