Written by Anne Isaacs, Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Dutton Children’s Books, 1994
Awards: Caldecott Honor
On August 1, 1815, when Angelica Longrider took her first gulp of air on this earth, there was nothing about the baby to suggest that she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee. The newborn was scarcely taller than her mother and couldn’t climb a tree without help.
The plot in a nutshell: A tall tale about a frontier lady life
Young Angelica has her first axe while she’s still in a crib and builds her first log cabin at the age of two. As a pre-teen, she rescues some settlers from a swamp and earns the nickname Swamp Angel. Some time later, a giant bear called Thundering Tarnation is terrorizing the Tennessee territory and Swamp Angel signs up to hunt for him. Many hunters try to capture him and fail, but Swamp Angel finds him and challenges him to a fight. During the battle, she throws him into the sky (where he leaves an imprint in the stars). He pins her at the bottom of a lake, but she drinks the whole lake and the fight resumes. When she finally wins, everyone in Tennessee comes to celebrate and Swamp Angel spreads his pelt across Montana, where it becomes known as the Shortgrass Prairie.
Author Anne Isaacs was working on another book when the idea of a giant bear battling a woodswoman came up in the story. She pulled that idea out with the intention of using it for a later story. After coming across the phrase, ‘swamp angel’ and hearing her daughter complain about how pioneer men got to do all the fun things and pioneer women had boring lives, she brought all of those elements together to create this, her first picture book. As someone who loved tall tales as a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and felt that it was a nice homage to early American folklore.
The artwork, from Paul O. Zelinsky, adds even more frontier authenticity to the story with pictures painted in oil on cherry, maple and birch veneers. The paint style, the settings and the color palettes all combine to give you the sense that you are looking at original art from early America. I really love the way that Swamp Angel is presented, as a character who is both literally and figuratively larger than everyone else and who showed up the naysayers by her deeds without making a big ‘girl power’ deal out of it. She achieves her goals with confidence, quick thinking and cleverness and that’s a great recipe for any kind of role model. A 2010 sequel, Dust Devil, tells the story of her further adventures.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there is always room in American folklore for a new larger than life character.