Read an Excerpt
I was once telling stories at a downtown arts centre when a restless group of kids stomped in. They were ten-year-olds from a Catholic school in a new housing development, and they came in munching potato chips and blowing bubble gum. One big boy with a cast on his arm had a well-practised burp. I could tell they weren’t in a listening mood. Since it was close to Halloween, I lit a candle, turned off the lights and started telling ghost stories.
It wasn’t long before they were hooked. I was, after all, using the world’s oldest method of crowd control: suspense. It worked for Scheherazade for a thousand and one Arabian nights and, sure enough, it worked for me. At the end I told them “The Golden Arm.” You’ve probably heard versions of this spooky “jump” story at summer camp, or on a sleepover where the challenge was to terrify your friends out of their wits. A treacherous husband has stolen his dead wife’s golden arm. He hides it under his pillow, and one night she comes looking for it. “What has become of your golden arm?” he asks shakily as she comes towards him. Then (and here the storyteller’s voice becomes very quiet) the ghost . . . reached . . . out . . . and . . . said . . . “You’ve got it!” At which point my thirty cool grade-five students screamed and jumped into each other’s laps. The tough kid with the cast, well, let’s just say he found new respect for the oral tradition.
When the lights came on, the children lined up to leave, talking excitedly about their shocking experience. I noticed one girl standing quietly, holding something around her neck. I asked if she liked the stories and she said, “Oh, yes. But when you told the last one I didn’t jump.”
“I noticed,” I said. “How come?”
“Because when I knew it was going to be scary, I held the Blessed Virgin Mary.” She showed me the amulet she was still holding. “You should get one, too.”
“I’m not sure I should,” I answered. “I’m Jewish.”
“That’s okay,” she said sagely. “Get a Jewish one.”
Writing this book about storytelling as an art and a way of life, I have often remembered the girl’s good counsel. When you know something scary is coming you must find and hold on to your own source of reassurance and wisdom. My young friend had an amulet. What I hold on to is the passionate belief that knowing good stories by heart and telling them to a circle of listeners makes a haven for the human spirit.
We are living through a time of unprecedented and troubling change. We have come to a crossroads where old and familiar customs break down, but the new moral frame and social structure we urgently need have not yet evolved. We step into the future with less connection to ancestral guidance than any human generation before us. Although we have invented amazing technologies for saving data, we are at risk of forgetting our personal, family and cultural stories. We broadcast our voices over vast distances, but talk less to our neighbours. Haunting these changes are the spectres of continuing violence, planetary degradation and, above all, the danger that we’ll come to believe the implacable message of the powerful: that resistance is futile.
The old stories teach us that resistance is never futile. Chinua Achebe tells this African fable in his great book, Anthills of the Savannah:
One time the Tortoise met the Leopard on the road. The Leopard said, “I’ve been looking for you for a long time. I’m going to eat you!” The little Tortoise said, “Just grant me one favour before you devour me.” The Leopard agreed.
“I must prepare my mind,” said the Tortoise.
The Leopard growled impatiently.
Then the Tortoise began to jump all over the road, throwing the dust every whichaway. He scattered the sand everywhere and ran madly back and forth across the road. Then he came back and stood proudly in front of the Leopard. “I am ready,” he said.
“Is that how you prepare for what I’m going to do to you?” snarled the Leopard.
“Yes,” said the Tortoise. “Because from now on, when people walk by this spot they’ll see these marks on the road and say, ‘This was a great struggle between two equals.’ They’ll remember that even a little Tortoise once fought the mighty Leopard. Perhaps the sign of our fight will give them the courage to fight you themselves.”
Tortoise leaves his marks not only in the sand but, even more subversively, in the memory of the community. If the story-traces of his struggle are remembered, he has indeed fought Leopard as an equal. We have many leopards blocking the road these days. Achebe’s story suggests that, although the ephemeral spoken word seems like a frail weapon to resist these deadly opponents, it may prove to be one of our strongest tools for fixing damaged lives, opening blocked roads and fighting against mighty leopards.
In her book The Dreamer Awakes, the wise teacher and master storyteller Alice Kane describes how she was contemplating the state of the world one day, and wondering what she, as a storyteller, could do to make a difference. Then she remembered her own wonder tales, where the hero, often a poor and unregarded boy or girl, must earn “a talisman, a little twisted stick, a sword of power, a dead mother’s blessing.” Armed with this token of new power, these unlikely heroes are able to accomplish world-changing deeds. Alice Kane decided that she, too, possessed such a talisman, and it was made of all the stories she knew by heart: “The whole background of story and song poured down upon us by those who have gone before. It is reassurance and courage, a great shining that transforms dark truth into victory.” Storytelling itself is, or can be, a tool for mending broken worlds.
The belief that storytelling is a necessary and beneficial art for our times has sparked a contemporary renaissance of oral literature. Achebe, describing the remarkable persistence of oral stories, has an elder remind his tribe, “The story is everlasting. . . . Like fire, when it is not blazing, it is smoldering under its own ashes or sleeping inside its flint-house.” That fire has been rekindled around the world, with a variety of festivals, groups and gatherings giving storytellers new places to explore their art. There is also a strong and growing interest in the way stories frame and flow through our everyday lives, anchoring identity, preserving family heritage and building intercultural bridges. From the rediscovery of folk traditions to the creation of a future folklore, storytellers today are celebrating the renewal of an art many thought was an endangered species.
You may come to the art as a new teller or a devoted listener. You may have a particular interest in understanding the stories of your own life and family, or use storytelling as a way to build community locally or around the world. My own path to storytelling began as a listener. Listening to told stories, by campfires, in kitchens and in concert halls, was my first love. I had to start telling because, as the saying goes, it is unfair to eat the fruit if you don’t help plant the trees.
For many storytellers of my generation, Ruth Sawyer’s book The Way of the Storyteller was a fine springboard into the art. Published in 1942, it is her account of being a storytelling pioneer. “I wish,” she wrote at the time, “there might be a guild for storytellers today where master and apprentice might work together for the upholding of their art . . .” Her wish came true. An international community of storytellers has flourished since her inspiring book was written. I have felt fortunate to be part of the Canadian branch of this movement.
Suddenly They Heard Footsteps reflects my experience as a Canadian storyteller, but I hope it is true to our common dream, fired by elders like Alice Kane and Ruth Sawyer, of making storytelling a living art for our times.
The Way of the Storyteller was my literary inspiration. Becoming a storyteller fifty years after Sawyer, I have tried to show you the way of a storyteller who came of artistic age knowing his stories must have room in them for firebirds and microchips, for spirit quests and concentration camps. I offer this book as an honour-song for our storytelling ancestors and an invitation for you to join the storytellers’ circle. I look forward to hearing your stories at the crossroads.