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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Great Canoe: A Kariña Legend
ad. by María Elena Maggi; tr. by Elisa Amado; illus. by Gloria Calderón

World mythology is replete with stories of a great flood that destroyed all but a little of life on the planet, and of the people, chosen and beloved of the gods, who survived to rebuild the earth. Children's literature is replete with flood stories, too, the majority of them picture-book versions from the Judeo-Christian tradition (such as Janisch's adaptation Noah's Ark, BCCB 12/97). One of the reasons flood stories resonate with adults and children is because they are powerful tales of destruction and resurrection distilled into simple, manageable terms, as is Maggi's retelling of the great flood story from the Kariña people of Venezuela.

Kaputano the Sky Dweller, father of the Kariña, appears on Earth to warn them of the coming flood, but most reject his warning. Only four couples heed the divine one's words, and those four couples build a gigantic canoe large enough to hold themselves, two of every animal, and seeds from every kind of plant. When, inevitably, the rains come, "the rivers overflowed. There was so much water that animals were swept away and you could no longer see the tops of even the tallest trees. The Kariña who stayed behind could not be rescued because the waves were too high. Their world was drowned in water." When the waters recede, the surviving couples are left in a land devastated by the water's fury. Kaputano asks them, "How do you want the world to be, as you see it now?" With this question he gives the surviving Kariña a chance to recall the earth to its former fertile glory: "It was then that Kaputano created a new world for his children, the Kariña, a world rich with marshes, rivers, mountains, and many trees."

Translated from the Spanish by Elisa Amado, the narrative is deliberately spare. It also has a logical continuity that contributes to the momentum and tension of the tale, even though the prototype flood story is not necessarily one that lends itself to suspense. Readers aloud and storytellers will appreciate the stringent yet lyrical text, with its easy rhythms and descriptive, evocative language.

Whether in scenes of calm domestic life or scenes of desperate industry, Calderón's hand-colored scratchboards have an organic energy unusual in this sometimes stiff medium. The illustrations depict the pre-flood preparations in compositions crowded with incident, from burning out the center of the huge canoe to gathering the seed and animals into a canoe too big to fit on the page. And then, the perspective shifts: the huge canoe appears tiny against the rising storm clouds and lightning flashes, small amidst the mountainous waves and fury of the great storm. The post-flood world is desolate, but it's been washed clean, a treeless, barren expanse raw under the rays of the sun. Black lines play delicately against white and hand-colored space; the lines for the leaves, the blades of waving grass, and the thatch on the roofs flow naturally over organic curves and textile weaves. Faces delicately emerge from the scratchboard, eyes glowing, smiles curving, expressions individual and distinct. The harmoniously balanced illustrations set the Kariña amidst the natural world of placid rivers, cultivated fields, and groves of palm trees that provide them with an idyllic new beginning.

Maggi includes extensive descriptions of her original inspiration for the retelling, her overall collaborative process with Calderón, and their subsequent visits to the Kariña, who today live in Anzoátegui region of Venezuela. The afterword includes both context and specific citations, and it offers a rich example of how to write a clear and satisfying source note. Collections seeking titles for storytelling, reading aloud, and studying comparative cultures and religions should waste no time adding this to their shelves.

--Janice M. Del Negro, Contributing Editor

Picture Image
Cover illustration by Gloria Calderón from The Great Canoe: A Kariña Legend c2001. Used by permission of Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2001.