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Peg Bearskin

by Adapted by Philip Dinn and Andy Jones; Elly Cohen, illus.

The indomitable Peg Bearskin, so named because she is hairy and big, propels this traditional Newfoundland tale. Peg and her two pretty sisters, on the road to seek their fortune, accept the hospitality of an old woman who is really a witch. Peg outsmarts the witch, and filches her three magic possessions to win princely husbands for herself and her sisters. Sadly, Peg’s husband can’t love his resourceful wife because of her physical ugliness. In a Shrek-like ending, Peg’s prince wields the witch’s magic to find himself as unprepossessing as his spouse.

This story is told in an immediate conversational voice, full of the salt tang of our easternmost province. The adapters Dinn and Jones, of Figgy Duff and CODCO fame respectively, have left enough traces of the Newfoundland dialect to give the tale authentic flavour, including verbal transitional phrases like “so, very good.” The casual dialogue between Peg and the king captures the zest of local humour. Peg addresses the king as “me highness,” and to her description of the witch’s magic lantern, the king responds, “Well, that’d be a handy thing for a king.”

Cohen’s black-and-white linocuts, reminiscent of David Blackwood’s work, perfectly complement this homespun style. However, their stark simplicity will probably appeal more to adults than to children, accustomed as they are to supersaturated cartoon palettes.

The story’s theme is timeless and important: people’s worth should never be measured by their exterior. Nevertheless, the tale does not sentimentalize, but plangently confronts the fact that Peg’s bravery and wit are not enough to stop her husband from hankering for a beautiful partner. Peg Bearskin is a wonderful introduction to Newfoundland’s rich oral culture.