Archived Reading Room

Real stories and lessons on how to tell them

bookHere is a book about storytelling that strikes a responsive chord in my own heart. Not only is Mary Hamilton a gifted storyteller who is in demand throughout Appalachia (and beyond); she has built a career based on identifying and preserving the folklore of our region. She is not content to merely tell the stories — she wants you to know where the tales originated and why they are significant. In addition, she often gives you a half dozen variations of a tale and makes specific recommendations to storytellers (parents, teachers and librarians) about the subtle factors that make an audience (or a child) responsive.

I was especially pleased to discover that Hamilton is an advocate of “spontaneous storytelling.”  She does not memorize stories, but relies on her audience and the details of the story to prompt her telling. “I never tell a story the same way twice,” she says, “not even to the same audience.”

She frequently repeats that “Storytelling is an interactive and ephemeral art composed of three essential elements — story, teller and audience.” She also has a great deal to say about the difference between stories that are “frozen” (written down) and stories that are “liquid” (spoken and therefore constantly subject to change).

However, the heart of Kentucky Folktales is an impressive collection of vintage Appalachian stories. Any reader who has childhood memories of stories will find themselves filled with nostalgic delight when they read Mary’s versions of “The Gingerbread Boy” (about a kid with a gingerbread cookie: when he bites the arms and legs off, his abusive father experiences the same amputation; “The Open Grave” was a Halloween favorite about a man who takes a nocturnal stroll through a graveyard and falls into an open grave. After hours of failed attempts to climb out of the grave, he gives up and sits down. Then, a second man falls into the grave and begins struggling to get out. The first man sits up and says, “It is pointless. You can’t get out of here,” … but the second man did. Then, there is “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” with a half-dozen variations. Many of Mary’s traditional stories such as this one illustrate a moral — stories in which the “good girl” is kind and considerate and returns home from a daunting journey with gold and silver; the “bad girl” treats everyone with disrespect and returns from her trip with worms and snails and maggots in her hair. And that isn’t all ....

I remember hearing these stories in elementary school. Reading Mary’s versions of them now, almost 70 years later, I am alarmed at how bloody and frightening many of them are. However, I can’t remember experiencing any nightmares or distress after hearing how the three sisters were cut up with an axe in “The Blue Light,” which I remember as “Mr. Fox” and/or “Bluebeard” and “The Robber Bridegroom” with barrels of severed arms, legs and heads ... or revenge of the murdered child in “Little Ripen Pear” (which I heard with a different title,  and it definitely resembles the classic folktale, “The Juniper Tree.”)

For me, all of this brings to mind Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, The Uses of Enchantment in which the author developed his theory that when children hear stories of bloodshed and violence, they experience a kind of therapeutic purging of violent emotions. In other words, stories in which anger and violence were depicted actually gave children a means cleansing themselves of negative emotions. Of course, anyone who remembers the controversy attending this theory knows that parent organizations often spoke out against Bettleheim’s conclusions. Some schools actually ended up censoring and/or editing works such as the Grimm Fairy Tales. The debate is still very much alive today.

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Yet, here are these traditional tales as vitally alive as they were a century ago, and still filled with violence and mutilation. Some are delightfully inventive (“The Fortune Teller”) and many are unabashedly comical (“The Enormous Bear”). Probably the most appealing section of Kentucky Folk Tales is “Tall Tales and Outright Lies.” I readily recognized some vintage favorites such as “Some Dog” which ended up in the best-selling Laughter in Appalachia by Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler. The protagonist in this tale, Some Dog, has numerous adventures including the one about the fact that he survived being cut into, from nose to tail tip and then put together in a botched surgery that gave him two legs on top and two legs on the bottom. He was also trained to find and bring home muskrats that were the same size of the pelt board his owner left on the back porch. Things went well until the owner mistakenly left an ironing board on the back porch. The dog is still out there, looking...

Hamilton does a marvelous job of providing a comprehensive guide to telling stories including a section on “Family Tales and Personal Narrative.” This section pays homage to what I have discovered is a major theme in my own storytelling: self-effacement. Audiences love stories about how the storyteller made a fool of himself.

I only have one serious objection to Mary Hamilton’s marvelous book. She repeatedly refers to all of the stories as “Kentucky Folktales.” Ah, no. Anyone with a smidgen of gumption knows that the majority of these tales came from Western North Carolina! I have known that for many years, and I have also known that North Carolina folks moved to Kentucky and took these stories with them. Of course, Mary honors her state by making frequent references to Kentucky sources like the Leonard Roberts Collection at Berea. Over here in North Carolina, we would probably refer you to the Richard Chase Collection or the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.

I heartily recommend Kentucky Folktales for everyone — teachers, storytellers and children. Better yet, if the opportunity presents itself, why not just get Mary Hamilton to come and tell stories in your school or library?

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