The Undeniable Charm of Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories
In the story “How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country” by American poet and writer Carl Sandburg, the main character Gimme the Ax decides to let his “children name themselves”: “The first words they speak as soon as they learn to make words shall be their names,” he states. Thus, his son is named Please Gimme, and his daughter is Ax Me No Questions. As the story continues, the three grow tired of living in a house “where everything is the same as it always was,” and sell everything they have—"pigs, pastures, pepper pickers, pitchforks”—and buy tickets on the zig-zag train “to ride where the railroad tracks run off into the sky and never come back.” The three eventually settle in Rootabaga Country, “where the big city is the Village of Liver and Onions” and the pigs wear bibs: “’Look out of the window and see if the pigs have bibs on,’ said Gimme the Ax. ‘If the pigs are wearing bibs then this is the Rootabaga country.’”
“How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country” is the inaugural tale of Sandburg’s endearingly wacky, utterly American Rootabaga Stories which he created for his daughters Margaret, Janet, and Helga--“whom he affectionately called his ‘Homeyglomeys,’” according to the National Park Service's Carl Sandburg Home website. Born in Illinois to Swedish immigrants, Sandburg is primarily known as an innovative, distinctly American poet who gained renown with the Chicago Poems (1916) and other works such as Cornhuskers (1918) and Good Morning, America (1928). Sandburg has a loose, free-form style reminiscent of Walt Whitman, and a voice that is both informal and direct. He brings this same sensibility to the Rootabaga Stories, and the tales are told in a straight-forward, ingenious manner that is rooted in the American desire for reinvention—from the use of language, to the method of story-telling, to the emphasis on American themes such as progress, opportunity, and self-definition. As Neil Philip relates in his introduction to Sandburg in American Fairy Tales, Sandburg “had felt dissatisfied with the fairy tales then available, saying, ‘I wanted something more in the American lingo.’” In all, Sandburg produced three volumes of stories about Rootabaga Country: Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), and Potato Face (1930). Some of the more memorable stories and characters you meet in the collection are such gems as “The Story of Jason Squiff and Why He Had a Popcorn Hat, Popcorn Mittens and Popcorn Shoes,” “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child,” and “How Henry Hagglyhoagly Played the Guitar with His Mittens On.” When you read these stories, it is impossible not to be charmed by them and the uniquely American imagination of Carl Sandburg.