LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Prairie Storyteller Extraordinaire

Come away with me a few moments to the enchanting world of the late Paul Goble, artist and storyteller extraordinaire, my favorite children’s book author of all-time (admittedly there are many I love).

Like most college students, I had courses that I preferred above all others. Mine, taught by some exceptional professors, included Myths & Legends, Shakespeare, and, the best, Children’s Literature. Kiddy Lit was taught by the incomparable Kay Werremeyer, and she worked her students hard. But, of course, we all learned so much more than we would with a lackadaisical teacher.

A few years later, I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and my friend, Pamela, and I would shop at several lovely bookstores in the area. I often gravitated to the children’s book section, and one of my purchases was the 1979 Caldecott award-winning “The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses” by Paul Goble. By that time, I had dreams of becoming a mother and sharing his books with my children. I still have that book and it became one of my daughter Chelsea’s favorites.

When I spotted the news of the publication of a Paul Goble biography (“Paul Goble: Storyteller” Gregory Bryan, South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), I ordered the book immediately. This past December, I finally found time to read it, and it is a delight.

“In a foreword written for Goble’s book ‘The Earth Made New,’ Joseph Medicine Crow, historian and spokesperson for the Crow National and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recalled his distant childhood: ‘I was fortunate as a boy because so many storytellers were ready to educate the young. … In today’s world it is difficult to learn about the olden-day stories, so books (such as Goble’s) that preserve this wisdom have great value.’ During a career spanning more than 40 years, Goble published over 40 books, most of them sharing and preserving traditional American Indian wisdom. He has been honored with many awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal awarded annually in the United States for the most distinguished picture book for children.” (Bryan, pg. ix)

Goble was born and reared in England and was fascinated by Native American culture at a very young age, an interest his mother indulged. He visited the U.S. as a young man and then lived most of the rest of his long life in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He became close friends with many Native American storytellers and describes his works as “reimagining” the tales they would share with him, including those of Edgar Red Cloud, a great-grandson of the famous war chief, Red Cloud.

What I so much like many others love about his art is the detail of the birds and plants. I used these illustrations to teach my children about the beauty of the Great Plains. Every page was a masterpiece, packed with delights, and we would linger over every page, day after day. “In ‘Horse Raid,’ he began experimenting with the inclusion of plants and rocks, and occasionally, animals other than those involved in the story events. In ‘The Friendly Wolf,’ he took things further. Several insects, flocks of birds, and various animals were hidden among the many rocks and heavily flowered plants included in his art.” (Byran, pg. 71)

“Lone Bull’s Horse Raid” immediately attracted positive reviews. “In England, the Times Literary Supplement described it as ‘attractive and authentic,’ … children’s author Janet Yolen described the book as ‘visually stunning,’ calling it ‘an outstanding book to look at and an exciting one to read.’ Writing in the Wyoming Literary Roundup, Wyoming artist Gordon Wilson wrote that the book ‘revealed knowledge of and deep respect for American Indian tradition and history.'” (Bryan, pg. 67)

Although Goble at times dealt with criticism as an Anglo interpreting Native American legends, by and large, he was appreciated by the indigenous community and was honored by many invitations to join in their ceremonies.

His trademark red sun is another detail that children and other readers enjoy identifying. “Writing in the The Rapid City Journal, Bruce Milhans wrote, ‘Goble’s book is appropriate for all ages. The colorful images will interest children, but the paintings and their messages … will be most appreciated by mature minds that can understand their layers and meaning.'” (Byran, pg.128-29)

Whenever I would stop in the Prairie Edge store in Rapid City, S.D., I would go up the wooden stairs to see what new Goble books they might have. Slowly, I built a complete collection.

It was deeply thrilling when librarian friends of mine told me he was coming to Dickinson, N.D. They arranged for Chelsea and me to dine with him, an evening I’ll never forget. He was a kind and soft-spoken gentleman, and it was a privilege to meet him. He graciously signed every single one of my books.

His books are enchanting, humorous (Iktomi), beautiful and enlightening. He also produced notecards and prints of his artwork. I have a print in our living room and a signed notecard in the library, on the shelf next to his books.

One of my prized possessions are two signed Goble originals, purchased at the Mount Rushmore gift store, a gift to me from a beloved mentor who knew how much I admired Goble’s work.

Goble donated most of his collection to the South Dakota Art Museum, and a visit there is on my to-do list.

“Goble’s strength as a writer was his ability to take traditional stories and make them interesting, comprehensible, and relevant to today’s young readers. He based his work on the stories of others, but he ‘felt able to embroider upon it.’ This ’embroidering’ was something children’s literature professor Jon Stott characterized as classic Goble: ‘Goble does not invent, he reinterprets; better still, he gives new life to the old stories using his knowledge of the old ways.'” (Bryan, pg. 168)

His friend Kevin Locke “dismisses the idea of restricting people according to race. ‘I think there is narrow-mindedness everywhere, unfortunately,’ he says. ‘You can’t fight darkness with darkness. You just have to shine the light on it.’ He also says ‘I’m a firm believer that the human spirit transcends race, nationality, ethnicity, and color so that, even though Paul is from England originally, surely the artistic heritage of this area (the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the Great Plains) was the vehicle through which his spirit could truly soar and he was able to express the spirit of the people of this area through his artwork.'” (Bryan, pg. 179)

As you will see from my final photograph below, much of the credit for the fact that I raised a girl who loves wild horses goes to the inimitable Paul Goble.

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