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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"The Harvest Feast," the Thanksgivingiest Book of Them All



     Point 1: There was a section of the library at Lincoln Elementary School that seemed like it was just for me. Not a section proper, cordoned off with a "Joey Marsilio Only" sign (wonderful though that would have been), but rather a number of books that I am fairly certain no one ever checked out but me. There was a book about the history of the werewolf, for example, that I probably read half a dozen times, and of course it was always on the shelf if I got a hankering to check it out, because who else is going to read something like that? Some other weirdo, probably, but I never met him or her.
     Point 2: Largely due to my fascination with the supernatural that lead me to checking out the aforementioned werewolf book, I have always loved Halloween to an unreasonable degree. So much so, in fact, that anything even tangentially related to Halloween would grab my attention as a kid. Scarecrows? Pumpkins? Corn stalks? Sure, let's see what this is all about.


     Today I would like to talk about a seasonally-appropriate book that represents the convergence of points 1 and 2. It's called The Harvest Feast, as you can see by the photo at the beginning of this article. As a sidenote, this book is so obscure that when I did a Google image search for "the harvest feast," a picture of the cover didn't even show up anywhere. Anyway, The Harvest Feast is an anthology of Thanksgiving stories by various authors, complied by one Wilhelmina Harper, that originally saw publication back in 1938. The copy I have is from the Tenth Printing of the book, so it seems I'm not the only person who has ever read it. I may be the only one that's still alive, though.
     As best I can recall, I was browsing the shelves at the aforementioned Lincoln library when this book caught my attention, probably because of the connection between the harvest and Halloween. I picked it up and began to flip through it, when a story entitled "The Pumpkin Giant" caught my eye. Intrigued, I skimmed the story and stopped when I encountered this illustration:



     A gargantuan clawed monster with a jack-o'-lantern head menacing some villagers? I was absolutely sold at that moment. Thus, I checked out the book and ravenously read the saga of the Pumpkin Giant. And it was...weird. Like, really weird. I didn't realize it at the time, but it kind of feels like The Princess Bride in that it takes certain fairy tale staples and then twists them into something strange and original. For example, there is a princess in this story, but she is incredibly obese. And I mean incredibly obese to the point that she has never taken an actual step in her life, getting around by rolling her corpulent form, clad in a specially made rolling suit, around the castle gardens, which have been carpeted to facilitate said rolling. This obesity, which is by turns morbid and quite jolly, factors heavily into the story, for the titular Pumpkin Giant has a diet consisting mostly of particularly fat children, thus causing the king eternal anxiety regarding his daughter's safety. Fortunately, when the giant decides to nosh on another portly child named Æneas (which, the book assures us, was as common a name as Tommy at the time), the boy tosses a particularly large potato down the monster's throat, upon which it chokes to death. As if this was not odd enough, the Pumpkin Giant's head is cut off and becomes Æneas's mammoth personal plaything until, as children do, he breaks it into many little pieces. These pieces end up giving rise to a whole crop of pumpkins, which people are terrified of at first, thinking that an army of Pumpkin Giants is growing from the ground. Eventually, culinary curiosity overcomes fear, and some of the possible giant heads are butchered to make pumpkin pies. And then Æneas and the princess get married.
     Overall, I must say that this narrative was not exactly what I was expecting, but it is certainly a unique story about where pumpkins come from, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Despite my enjoyment, though, it was some time and several library checkouts before I actually read the whole book. No other story else seemed as immediately engaging as "The Pumpkin Giant," and there were so many other things to read (Creatures from UFO's wasn't going to read itself, after all) that I passed over the bulk of the book initially. The limited library lending time frame did not help matters.


     Eventually, though, I procured a copy of The Harvest Feast for my very own. Well, let me rephrase that: my grandmother stole a copy of it from a library, a plot which I quickly figured out, despite her attempts to convince me otherwise. Bear in mind, this was before the Internet, the halcyon days when people used to sit around watching television all the time instead of sitting around using their computers and phones to watch television all the time.You couldn't just get a copy of an old book off of Amazon or eBay or what have you. Back then, you either found it at a used bookstore or stole it from the library, and if the latter is the more morally questionable, it was in this case an act performed with good intentions, at least. The good intentions of getting me to shut my yapping mouth for a while and read something.
     In any event, now that the book was mine to do with as I pleased, I read the whole thing cover to cover. It is divided roughly in half, into "Days of the First Thanksgiving" and "Thanksgiving Stories of Today" sections. In general the first section deals with colonial times, and the stories, while generally enjoyable, tend to run together a bit. You've got your colonists (shout out to the impressively named Wrestling Brewster), who may or may not be starving, and you've got your Native Americans, whom the colonists are terrified of. Typically, things work out and everybody's cool, often because the natives decide not to massacre the colonists or let them starve. In one rather unexpected case, the colonists eat from food stores left behind by a group of natives that have mostly been wiped out by a disease, and end up catching the illness themselves, which decimates their ranks. This plague seems to be somewhat supernatural in nature, since once a brave young boy brings a offering of coins to the only survivor of the infected tribe (the tribesman only likes the shiniest coins regardless of their actual value, which is either a refreshingly non-materialistic attitude or, more likely, pretty damn insulting), the disease clears up and everybody is A-OK. Considering how things turned out long-term, the tribesman probably wishes he could have reconsidered the terms of that agreement.
     Now is probably the time to address the racial element of these stories. Obviously, given that the book is 80 years old, and the stories themselves are older than that, it stands to reason that some of the language and ideas here are not the most progressive. Particularly in this first half of the book, terms like "red men" and "savages" are strewn about like so much Stove Top stuffing, which really doesn't fly anymore unless you're Dan Snyder. Furthermore, the Native Americans are presented in no uncertain terms as an "other," a fearsome, primal force that could wipe out the colonists on a whim. The thing is, though, with the exception of a story set during the American Revolution wherein the British are employing natives to attack the colonists (happy holidays!), the Native Americans aren't so much vilified as they are formidable and awe-inspiring, and the running theme of these stories is essentially a hope for peace between the white and "red" men.
 

     Now, it may not necessarily be the greatest thing in the world that the natives are alien forces of nature, but frankly they are pretty badass, holding the colonists' lives in the palm of their hands and (usually) choosing to spare them. The colonists themselves are certainly not without flaws, either; they are noted to be somewhat snobby and class-obsessed, and almost toss a kid overboard based largely on the shabbiness of his coat. I recognize that the whole "noble savage" thing is pretty trite, and history may not bear out the friendly relationships on display here, but come on, these are holiday stories. We have 364 other days of the year where we can talk about genocidal bloodbaths, and it's kind of sweet that these tales aspire for peace and harmony between two very different groups of people. Anyway, your mileage may certainly vary there.
     The racial overtones largely vanish in the second half of the book, "Thanksgiving Stories of Today." This is where, frankly, the book gets immensely more fun and zany. These stories are absolutely all over the place, with the only unifying element being that in most cases (not all), the word "Thanksgiving" or some sort of holiday food is mentioned somewhere. There's a loose, anarchic spirit to the story selection here, and Mrs. Harper made some excellent selections. I'm going to give you my brief impressions of each of these stories so that you can see what I mean:

1. "Chaota and the Turkey"-In this shockingly morbid story, a family on a ranch decides to plan way ahead for Thanksgiving, and breed a bunch of turkeys with the end goal to have a nice juicy bird on the table in November. The turkeys then proceed to die in various ways (illness, drowning, being carried off by an eagle, murdering one another) until only one is left. The family hires a young Native American, Chaota, to watch over the last turkey standing and ensure his survival until Thanksgiving. Chaota and the turkey bond and become buddies, until tragedy strikes and the bird is kidnapped by Mexicans. Chaota ends up tracking them down and gets the turkey back, but only after the rascally Hispanics have blown its head off. Chaota nabs the poultry corpse and brings it home, just in time for everyone to roast it up real nice and enjoy a Thanksgiving feast. Everyone, that is, except Chaota, who walks back to his reservation alone, weeping over the death of his friend, the majestic turkey. This story is proof that life is meaningless and that we are all monsters.

2. "When the Frost is on the Punkin'"-A cute little sing-songy poem. I took the time to memorize this back in grade school, and would recite it for my teachers. My parents made fun of me for being a nerd, and I promptly stopped.

3. "A Turkey for the Stuffing"-An impoverished kid and his grandmother try to make the best of having very little food on Thanksgiving. Later, a ship captain is impressed by the boy's gumption and gives him a bunch of food, including half a turkey and a mince pie! I've really gotta befriend some ship captains.



4. "The Pumpkin Giant"-We've covered this. As you'll see, it's neither the weirdest nor the most barely-tangentially-related-to-Thanksgiving story here. Also, I don't know how this is considered a "Story of Today" when it concerns the origin of the pumpkin.

5. "Old Man Rabbit's Thanksgiving Dinner"-A geriatric hare prepares Thanksgiving dinner for himself as a parade of grousing, starving animals walk by. Instead of laughing at their misfortune, the rabbit invites all of this forest friends over to eat, and is so busy making sure his friends are fed that he doesn't even eat himself. When Ayn Rand was a child, she had nightmares like this.

6. "A Thanksgiving Fable"-Another poem, this time about a cat who muses how thankful he would be if he ate a mouse in the middle of its Thanksgiving prayers on Thanksgiving Day. Does the mouse make it out alive? You'll have to read it to find out. Oh, and he does. Whoops!

7. "Elephants Crossing the Moon"-A peculiar semi-horror story about disasters and bad omens befalling a house on Thanksgiving. Believe it or not, the twist at the end of this story is more or less the same as the one at the end of "The Fear," the penultimate episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps there were some Harvest Feast fans on the show's writing staff? No, probably not.

8. "Thanksgiving Dinners"-A bird and a fish bemoan the fact that their owner, a young boy, is too distracted by Thanksgiving Day celebrations to actually feed them. He eventually remembers, and is terribly ashamed. As he should be.


9. "Minna's Thanksgiving"-Another poem, this one about a little girl who goes out into the freezing cold on Thanksgiving morning to thank all of the animals at her family's farm. I guess it's fine, if you're into the whole "precious" thing.

10."Old Tom's Thanksgiving Dinner"-A grizzled old prospector (is there any other kind?) looks for precious ore while yelling at his companions for their laziness and incompetence. Do they enjoy a nice meal together, or does someone get hacked to death with a pickax? I'm not tellin'.

11. "A Thanksgiving Dinner that Flew Away"-Written by Hezekiah Butterworth (!), this strange story concerns a possibly demonic gander that menaces the narrator. When the owner of this feathered fiend is questioned vis-a-vis slaughtering the bratty waterfowl for culinary purposes, she relates the sad tale of the last time she saw her son. He was leaving on a ship to go live with his uncle, and had taken the bird with him to eat on Thanksgiving. The ship and its crew are never seen again, and the gander returns home. The owner claims she lets it run free because it is the only one that knows what happened to her son. Personally, I think the gander murdered the crew of the ship and destroyed the vessel itself once it found out it was going to be devoured, and this lady is way too scared to make a move on it after all that. But that's just me.



12. "The Lame Squirrel's Thanksgiving"-Something of the inverse of "Old Man Rabbit's Thanksgiving Dinner," this tale concerns a lame (as in injured, not socially maladjusted) squirrel whose physical ailment precludes him from gathering much food for the winter. Taking pity upon him, the other forest animals put together a feast for the squirrel, tell him to cast aside the wormy chestnut he is desperately gnawing upon, and bestow upon him their delicious bounty. Oddly, "Old Man Rabbit" also featured a squirrel that was specifically noted to be lame. What's the deal with all these lame squirrels? And what about airplane food, right guys?

13. "A Quick-Running Squash"-This peculiar tale takes place on a Thanksgiving morning when some creep (the devil? He is tall and thin with long red hair, a red cap and dirty kid's gloves, so I'm thinking yes) appears out of nowhere, gives a young boy a "magic seed" and asks him to plant it, then vanishes. The boy, too sheltered to know what a terrible idea this is, plants the seed, which within moments blossoms into a giant squash that starts tearing around the yard like a squash out of hell. The boy leaps on the squash to try and stop it, but the squash shall know no stoppage, vaulting over walls and ripping across the countryside. Then the damn thing gets so big that it actually explodes, and the family and their neighbors enjoy squash pie for weeks. Sort of a companion piece to "The Pumpkin Giant" in the "oversized sentient gourd that is destroyed after tormenting a child, whose family then consumes its remains" genre.
 

14. "The Kingdom of the Greedy"-Here we have the story with the most tenuous connection to Thanksgiving. It tells of a country whose citizenship is obese, unhealthy and addicted to junk food, so despite its age it could clearly be mistaken for a modern-day parable. Anyway, the ruler of this country decides that the best solution to this epidemic is to hire an old crone named Mother Mitchel, who owns a fearsome, possibly sorcerous cat named Fanfreluche, to bake a gargantuan tart the size and shape of the capital building, then forbid anyone in the country to eat anything but tart under pain of death until the monstrous pastry is entirely consumed. Eventually everyone gets horribly ill from this diet, and after letting them suffer for a while to make sure the lesson sinks in, the king starts sending them nourishing food. The people thus kick their junk food habit, and it is noted that the doctors are despondent and can no longer get wealthy off of others' misery. One does not usually expect such trenchant commentary on the health care system in a children's fable. Also, Fanfreluche runs away at the end, which makes me very sad for poor Mother Mitchel, who was just doing her job and trying to make people happy.

15. "Goody O'Grumpity"-Yet another poem. An old lady bakes a cake, which attracts a crowd of children, to whom she each gives a slice. Not exactly Beowulf, this one.

16. "The Huckabuck Family"-Sigh...I guess I have to talk about this. "The Huckabuck Family" concerns the obscenely annoying family named in the title, consisting of a father, mother and child who are either moronic or deranged. They defend their incredibly stupid system of giving everyone the same first name twice (ex. "Jonas Jonas Huckabuck") by saying that if you call them by their first name and they don't hear it, they'll probably catch it the second time. The daughter, incidentally, is named Pony Pony because she is a "pony-faced girl," which makes me err on the side of "deranged" in terms of the family's mental state, because that is an unfathomably cruel thing to do to a child. So they decide to grow a crop of popcorn, until the discovery of a silver slipper buckle inside a squash (?) changes the family's luck, and a house fire causes all the corn to pop. Rather than lament the loss of his family's entire livelihood, the father just seems nonplussed and suggests that everyone move away until the popcorn is blown away by the wind. He then gets a series of odd jobs all over America, including...deep breath..."a watchman in a watch factory watching the watches." Is this almost over yet? Anyway, ol' pony face eventually finds the mate of the slipper buckle in another squash (seriously, what the hell?), causing the family's luck to change back to good again, and they move back to the farm to find that the popcorn has all blown away. The lesson here, according to the story, is "to be careful when [you] open a squash." Ugh. I have a headache. I wish one of the stupid squashes here had been like the quick-running squash, exploding and killing everyone.


17. "Ezra's Thanksgivin' Out West"-A somber tale of a lonely man in Kansas who recounts the Thanksgivings of his youth in New England. It serves as a nice reminder to children that they, too, can grow up to be lonely and full of regret, which frankly is a lesson that is often neglected in school these days.

18. "Thanksgiving Night"-Closing things out is one final poem, wherein a man is stricken by insomnia, and ruminates upon the bygone days of joyous childhood Thanksgivings. A nice, bittersweet send-off for the season as fall gives way to wintry darkness. Also possibly the last thing you read before you become a Holiday Statistic.

At this point, I have absolutely written way too much about this book (for though I feel like I've left a lot out, this is probably the most arcane thing I've ever written about, and I'm not gonna push my luck any further), so I think it's time that I sign off and go heat up a turkey Hungry Man. I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving, and if you don't celebrate the holiday, I hope you at least enjoy your day off! Unless you happen to work retail, in which case, may God have mercy on your soul.
 

Joey Marsilio's book Henry Garrison may not be 80 years old, but it sure is fun! If you don't believe him, just buy a copy for yourself right here and see for yourself.

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