Vermont Reads 2015: The Enduring Value Of Storytelling

May 29, 2015

This week, we're considering the role of storytelling for Vermont Reads, the Vermont Humanities Council's state-wide reading program. This year's book is Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.

Haroun admires his father, the great story-teller Rashid, and his ability to keep crowds of people awestruck with the power of his tales. When he travels to a magical world to bring back the source of the stories, Haroun meets a mysterious page called Blabbermouth, a girl who masquerades for a time as a boy, and in her presence, Haroun finds himself without words.

She juggled behind her back, over and under her leg, with her eyes closed, and lying down, until Haroun was speechless with admiration; and every so often she'd throw all the balls into the air, reach into her pockets, and produce more of the soft golden spheres, until she was juggling nine balls, then ten, then eleven. And every time Haroun thought, 'She can't possibly keep them all up', she'd add even more balls to her whirling galaxy of soft, silken suns.

It occurred to Haroun that Blabbermouth's juggling reminded him of the greatest performances given by his father, Rashid Khalifa, the Shah of Blah. 'I always thought storytelling was like juggling,' he finally found the voice to say. 'You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you're good you don't drop any. So maybe juggling is a kind of storytelling, too.'

Blabbermouth shrugged, caught up all her golden balls, and tucked them away in her pockets. 'I don't know anything about that,' she said. 'I just wanted you to know who you were dealing with here.'

Vermont Storytellers

When Salman Rushdie visited Vermont this winter, he said that parts of the book began as bedtime stories he would tell his son. 

Storytelling is universal and while there has always been an element of entertainment to good storytelling, it serves a more profound purpose. Storytelling is our way of telling our history and the history of those around us. It helps us make sense of the universe.

Think of creation myths, or epic tales like The Iliad and The Odyssey, all of which have their origins in oral traditions.

When author David Budbill moved from New York City to the Northeast Kingdom 45 years ago, he was struck by the stories he heard there.

Budbill says back then storytelling was part of daily life, as natural and spontaneous as talk about the weather. “It was not conscious. People did it in an unconscious way. They weren’t thinking about what they were doing, they were just doing it,” he says.

Budbill listened and took notes. The notes became Judevine, a book about the lives of people in a fictitious Northeast Kingdom town.    

The Judevine stories might seem uniquely Vermont, but Budbill has seen his play based on the book performed around the country.

"People were talkers in a way that people are not talkers now. If that's your only mode of communication then you do that." - David Budbill, author

“People in California, or Wisconsin or Alabama or wherever, they think it’s their play,” he says. Storytelling is as old as language, but Budbill says it’s not so much a feature of daily life anymore. “People were talkers in a way that people are not talkers now. If that’s your only mode of communication then you do that,” he says.

Evidence of those talkers survives today in the archives of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.  

Some of the stories there give us important perspectives into the times; for example, the stories told by Daisy Turner, the daughter of slaves, who lived for more than a century in Grafton.

Others in the Folklife Center archive alter the way we see history.

The Abenaki story about the 1759 Rogers Raid on a native settlement by a group of New Hampshire Rangers is very different from the prevailing Anglo narrative.

Our debt to the storytellers of previous generations is in the small details of life that they reveal that might otherwise be lost.

Katharine Flint Duclos' father, Perkins Flint, developed a repertoire of stories about local events and people.
Credit Photo: Jack Rowell

“In anthropology and folklore, when you’re looking to find your way into a situation, a culture, a community where you’re an outsider, what you’re looking for is a partner,” says Gregory Sharrow, co-director of the Vermont Folklife Center. “The term of art within that kind of research is an informant, but not just any informant, a key informant.”

A key informant is someone with a broad range of interests who has an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s awareness; in other words, a good storyteller.

Sharrow conducted many interviews with the late Katharine Flint Duclos of Braintree, who died a few years ago at 103. Here she is describing how she and her classmates got a drink of water at school:

“For water we went down back. There was a little brook down there. We used to go down back, we used to fold a piece of arithmetic paper into a cup and raise our fingers and the teacher would let us go out and we’d get our drink of water down by the brook.”

Like the people who inspired David Budbill, Katharine Duclos’ stories were spontaneous and unrehearsed.

But there is also a more polished kind of storytelling. 

Sharrow says Duclos’ father, Perkins Flint, had dozens of stories about local events and people. They were clearly part of a body of work. “He developed a repertoire of named stories. I have to believe that he spent some time working things out, getting things right – as an author, only a verbal author,” Sharrow says.

Humor, used to leaven many stories, figures in a Perkins Flint story about a couple named Battles who called each other ‘Hub’, arguing about whether or not to let the chickens out while hawks were around. The husband claims he can protect them with his rifle.

The Battles of Braintree were the subject of a Perkins Flint story about chickens and hawks.
Credit Vermont Folklife Center

Needless to say, a hawk grabs a chicken from under the husband’s nose and the wife’s response is so dry it crackles.  

“And she walked up to the door with a discouraged look and took a look out and she turned around to go back and she says, ‘Just as I expected’,” Flint relates.

Stories don’t just say, "Things have changed." They illustrate how.

In one story, plow driver Hugh Fiefield recalled that once a upon a time a lit porch light was an invitation for him to stop, climb down from his truck and do some visiting.

Then one night he came upon a light and realized the meaning had changed.

"Something like storytelling that's so fundamental to human experience; it's not going to go away." - Gregory Sharrow, The Vermont Folklife Center

“I was going along and this light come on and I was plowing snow,” Fiefield explains. “And I says, ‘Jeez, I don’t know who lives there but they must be cordial; they’re turning the light on.' So I backed up and got out and went to the door and [they said], ‘What do you want?’ I didn’t realize at the time that it was a sensor light that came on. They didn’t turn it on at all. Times were changing. That’s for sure.”

Times have changed, but the Folklife Center’s Gregory Sharrow believes the storytelling tradition hasn’t.

“Something like storytelling that’s so fundamental to human experience; it’s not going to go away,” he says.

Sharrow says there are still plenty of stories being told, but they are charting the history of new communities, whether they’re ethnic, political, or based on geography or sexual orientation.    

Storytelling remains a way in which we hold a mirror to ourselves.

Commentary: The Future Of Books

There is an argument made that story is still abundant these days – but only because it's being kept alive primarily on screens – however, commentator Kathryn Stearns says there's still a place for the good old-fashioned book.

"In Dartmouth’s Rauner Library, rare books sit behind glass walls, floating in a transparent double-story box that fills the atrium. They’re beyond reach, objects to behold from a distance."

"This is a good place to ponder the future of the book. The shift from bound paper to digital screen has put Gutenberg’s invention and 500 years of print media at risk.  How long before all books are regarded as artifacts to be preserved in climate-controlled cases?"

"In 2013, for the first time, publishers made more money from electronic book sales than from brick-and-mortar bookstores, according to the Association of American Publishers."

"Video, audio and graphics now embellish the written word, resulting in a reinvention of expression."

"Networked books, with communal authors, exist outside time and space, asserts The Institute for the Future of the Book in Brooklyn."

"Technology has altered the ecology of reading; soon, most books will reside not on shelves but in our mobile phones."

"Little wonder that sociologists predict that reading for pleasure — picture a young girl in a hammock on a summer’s day clutching a copy of Charlotte’s Web — will be the province of a special class, much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy in the second half of the 19th century."

"The assumption is that humans, whose neurons struggle to make sense of symbols, prefer streaming media and bite-size information presented on a screen to the printed book."

"In a few generations, or less, reading a paperback will seem as odd as unscrolling papyrus."

"Maybe."

"But there’s evidence that physical books — portable, versatile and battery-free — might survive the revolution."

"Tim Waterstone, founder of a successful British bookstore chain, told those gathered at the Oxford Literary Festival last year that e-book sales were sagging, while those of printed books were up."

"'Print on paper has lasted for centuries,' he said. 'It’s one of the most wonderful, really successful consumer products of all time.'"

"I like to believe the beleaguered book will hang on. Last year, the Five Colleges Book Sale, held annually in the Upper Valley, drew more people on its first day than ever before in its long history. Meanwhile, U.S. independent bookstores, decimated by the likes of Amazon, are resurging, their numbers up since 2009."

"If comedian and cultural observer Stephen Fry is right that books are no more threatened by Kindle e-readers than stairs by elevators — well, then, I’ll take the stairs."