The collector’s edition of “WUNDERGARTEN,” the folktale I set in 1870s Colonial Cullman, was birthed this week. (Signed copies available at Leldon’s in the Cullman Warehouse District by April 25, in time for Mother’s Day gifts.) Saluting the forested hills of north Alabama, it has an engraved wood binder, and, accompanied by a framed print of the cover art, it is a silent auction donation to benefit Alzheimer’s of Central Alabama at a grand gala on May 6 in Birmingham.
Over a delightful, alfresco lunch at Little Donkey with a fundraising volunteer for that event (they chose the place, and I tried not to take it personally), we discussed favorite tales by other Alabama writers. Here are some fantastic and fantastical stories I treasure:
- BIG FISH by Daniel Wallace is always my first choice for “Most Magical Tale Ever Inspired by Our State,” in part because Daniel is a friend, but also, I simply put no other Alabama storytellers above him. Herr Wallace is also funny as flippin’ fiddlesticks! I love “Big Fish,” the movie, the Broadway musical and any other interpretations. Opera-to-be? “It’s not over until the ‘Big Fish’ sings.”
- ANGELS AMONG US written by Don Goodman and Becky Hobbs, but brought magically to life by the legendary country music band, Alabama. The lead singer of that group, Randy Owen, performed the song at the funeral of his personal friend, NASCAR stockcar racer, Dale Earnhardt Sr. When you rush to YouTube to play this chart-topper again, particularly swoon to the sweet sound the members of the Young Musicians Choir of the First Baptist Church of Fort Payne, Alabama add to the story.
This folktale, reminiscent of other “lost in the woods” stories like “Hansel and Gretel,” could have been written about a “wandering in the wundergarten” by the Brothers Grimm:
“I was walkin’ home from school
On a cold winter’s day,
Took a short cut through the woods
And I lost my way.
It was getting’ late, and I was scared and alone.
Then a kind old man took my hand, and led me home.
Mama couldn’t see him,
But he was standing there,
And I knew in my heart
He was the answer to my prayer.
Oh, I believe there are Angels Among Us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love.
- FRIED GREEN TOMATOES at the WHISTLE STOP CAFÉ by Fannie Flagg is a 1987 novel inspired by the railroad community of Irondale, just outside Birmingham. Like any great Southern storyteller, Miz Flagg time weaves the past and the present about a blossoming female friendship. It was developed into an audience-pleasing, Hollywood feature film in 1991. Pre-COVID, there were rumors in the entertainment industry that country superstar Reba McEntire would be the lead in a television series adaptation.
The tale explores serious themes of family conflict, aging, lesbianism and the dehumanizing effects of racism on both black and white people. Did I mention it’s a dramedy? If my memory serves me, which it doesn’t always, a climax for the story involves the accidental death of a “bad man” and destroying the evidence by turning his body into pulled pork for barbecue sandwiches. Yeah, per Oliver, “May I have more, sir?”
- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee is loosely based on the storyteller’s observations of her family and neighbors in Monroeville. Though many consider the simple telling of the tale to be in the juvenile fiction category, the book, published in 1960, remains a bestseller six decades later.
Awarded a Pulitzer Prize, it was perfectly timed for the American Civil Rights Era, and the story themes of tolerance and racial justice unfortunately still resonate today. The tale, as old as time, has been retold across the world. In 2006, British librarians ranked TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD ahead of The Holy Bible as one “every adult should read before they die.” Really? More important than the Bible? Ms. Lee did not write the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film based on her book, that was done by fellow Southerner, Horton Foote. Since 1990, a “live action” play based on the Harper Lee novel is performed in Monroeville, AL each summer. I should hope for as much for “WUNDERGARTEN.” Surely, some aspiring actress wants to don a dirndl in soppy wet, Alabama summertime and flit through Frau Ruehl’s farm. The Alabama hills are alive!
- THE GRASS HARP by Truman Capote tells the story of an orphaned boy and two elderly ladies who observe life from a tree. Eventually, the three comrades climb down from their high post and make amends with each other, family and neighbors. Capote was a masterful storyteller who was instrumental in the success of Harper Lee’s one, acclaimed tale (see #4). A CHRISTMAS MEMORY is my favorite, Capote tale. That holiday classic is sweet, funny and tender. However, THE GRASS HARP is more fanciful and exaggerated like an EYES-WIDE-OPEN folktale.
- FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom involves a simpleton who despite his intellectual challenges is filled with wisdom like a box of chocolate drop candies is filled with surprises. Gump says he “can think things pretty good,” but when he tries “sayin’ or writin’ them, it kinda comes out like Jello.” If I had a nickel, right?
Like a hero in a Brothers Grimm folktale, Forrest Gump retells a series of adventures ranging from shrimp boating and ping pong championships to dreaming about his childhood sweetheart—Jenny. Along the way, Gump bumbles through American history including serving in the Vietnam War and winning a national football championship. Roll over Bear Bryant, there’s a new bloke in town. All together now—“Run, Forrest, run!”
- WHAT WILL MOTHER NATURE WEAR? by Charles Ghigna who has written 5,000+ poems and 100 books, many of those for children. Mr. Ghigna, known popularly as “Father Goose,” lives in Homewood, AL and for many years taught creative writing and literature at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (Birmingham). Other tales to explore by this charming and gifted Alabama-based storyteller are “The Day I Spent in the Shelby County Jail,” “The Magic Box,” “Snow Wonder” and “Once Upon Another Time.” Here’s a short sample:
WHAT WILL MOTHER NATURE WEAR?
What will Mother Nature wear?
She always keeps us guessing,
With each new season of the year,
She likes to change her dressing.
What will Mother Nature wear?
Green? Or gold? Or white?
She often likes to change her clothes—
- 13 ALABAMA GHOSTS and JEFFREY by Katherine Tucker Windham is a book published in 1969 by Alabama folklorist, Kathryn Tucker Windham and co-created with Margaret Gillis Figh. The concept is a compilation of a dozen ghosts haunting Alabama properties and Jeffrey who haunts the Windham house. It’s like sitting with a dear aunt after a Sunday lunch and having the devil scared out of you.
- PAPER TOWNS by John Green is a young adult novel. I became aware of Mr. Green because he was linked to Indian Springs Prep School, just outside Birmingham, AL. He has been a phenom in films about coming-of-age, 21st century teens. This folktale, PAPER TOWNS, is about a passionate search by the protagonist for his possibly “lost love” and a neighbor lady. Dear Reader, could you call 911 and Jane Austen?
- STARS FELL ON ALABAMA written by Mitchell Parish for a Frank Perkins’ tune was made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. The 1934 jazz standard title refers to a spectacular, astronomical happening of the Leonid meteor shower which Alabamians observed in November 1833, “the night the stars fell.”
As reported by the Alabama newspaper The Florence Gazette: “(There were) thousands of luminous bodies shooting across the firmament in every direction. There was little wind and not a trace of clouds, and the meteors succeeded each other in quick succession.”
Here is the inspired tale told by Mitchell Parish:
“We lived our little drama.
We kissed in a field of white.
And stars fell on Alabama last night.
I can’t forget the glamour.
Your eyes held a tender light,
And stars fell on Alabama last night.
I never planned in my imagination,
A situation so heavenly,
A fairy land where no one else could enter,
And, in the center just you and me, dear
My heart beat like a hammer,
My arms wound around you tight,
And stars fell on Alabama last night.
CELEBRATING IN THE WUNDERGARTEN – This storytelling culinary series imagines tasty , traditional foods from the recipe box our heroine, Frau Ruehl, brought with her from Germany when she relocated to what is present-day Cullman County, Alabama. Here is a simple but wonderful entrée, Frau Ruehl would have been proud to serve her guests in the “WUNDERGARTEN:”
ALABAMA-BAKED BIG FISH
- 1 (4-6 lb.) whole fish, such as bass (call your fishmonger or Bassmaster), cleaned
- 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
- 1/2 tsp. coarse, Kosher salt, more as needed
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper, more as needed
- Thinly sliced lemon, as needed, plus lemon wedges for serving
- 1 small bunch fresh herbs, such as sage, thyme or rosemary
- 1 lb. wild mushrooms, including maitake and oyster, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Best quality extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
- Flaky sea salt, for serving
- Heat oven to 400 degrees. Coat fish with oil and season it generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff cavity with lemon wedges and herbs. Transfer to a baking sheet or large roasting pan and bake until the flesh is opaque and separates easily from the backbone, 35-45 minutes for a 4-lb. fish, 45-60 minutes for a 6-lb. fish.
- While fish cooks, toss mushrooms with 3 tbsp. oil, 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Spread mushrooms out in one layer on 1 or 2 baking sheets, taking care not to crowd them. When fish is done, remove from oven and turn on broiler. Broil mushrooms until they are crisp and golden, 5-10 minutes.
- Let fish rest in roasting pan for 5 minutes. Using back of a fork, scrape away fish skin and divide top filet among plates. Lift away backbone and discard; scoop bottom filet away from its skin (which should stick to the pan) and divide among plates. Drizzle filets with good olive oil, season with flaky sea salt and serve with lemon wedges and crisp mushrooms on the side.
TIP: To double this recipe, use two BIG fish, each cooked in its own pan.
HAPPY NEW WEEK and AUF WIEDERSEHEN Y’ALL!
Find all columns in this series at www.cullmantribune.com/tag/celebrating-in-the-wundergarten.