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Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century

by Dan Yashinsky

More than any other activity, it is storytelling that makes us human. Termites build. Primates use tools. Most animals have some form of language, of communication. So far as we know, however, it is only human beings that tell one another stories born out of imagination and recollection.

While Toronto storyteller Dan Yashinsky barely touches on the biological determinism of storytelling in his new book Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, he does explore the biological and psychological imperative underlying the oral tradition. The editor of four collections of tales (and the author of The Storyteller at Fault), Yashinsky stresses his “passionate belief that knowing good stories by heart and telling them to a circle of listeners makes a haven for the human spirit,” and can possibly become “a tool for mending broken worlds.” Yashinsky makes it very clear that storytelling holds a sacred place in the human psyche, distinct from the narratives of television, film, or written literature. “With all of our new technologies of instant data transmission, human beings have never felt more disconnected from our neighbours, families, communities, and nature,” Yashinsky writes, while oral storytelling addresses “a deeply felt hunger for intimacy, for community, for continuity with the past….”

Suddenly They Heard Footsteps is at once a polemic for storytelling and a personal memoir, a handbook for prospective storytellers and an anthology of tales from which the reader may borrow. It is a passionate work of deeply held belief that ultimately seems too short.

That feeling of mild frustration is an old storyteller’s trick, a variation on the idea that you should always leave your audience craving more. For a storyteller, this deliberate short measure leaves room for the story to expand, to be turned over and examined in the mind of the reader.

Yashinsky writes with a deliberately prosaic style; the book has a personal, conversational tone that belies the significance and importance of its ideas. Its relative brevity allows for careful consideration, for the gradual absorption of Yashinsky’s ideas of tradition and the role of storytelling in the digital world.

As a practising storyteller (taking his story circle from school to library to bar to festival), Yashinsky finds himself part of both that age-old tradition and the thriving contemporary storytelling culture. His descriptions of his mentors, including Angela Sidney (the Tagish elder whose story was also told in Julie Cruikshank’s masterful Life Lived Like a Story) and Joan Bodger (whose passionate How the Heather Looks vividly captures her love of story, both oral and written), demonstrate both his deep respect for the traditions as well as the vitality of the craft.

And storytelling is certainly a craft. Much of Suddenly They Heard Footsteps documents Yashinsky’s development as a storyteller, from his early experiences as a camp counsellor (which includes a wonderful discussion on the haunted nature of all summer camps) to his frustrating early experiences telling stories to children, to his creation of Toronto’s 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling to his experiences at storytellers’ festivals around the world.

In documenting the development of his skills and insights, as well as his techniques for gathering stories (from sources folkloric, literary, and personal), Yashinsky provides a kind of training manual for aspiring storytellers, one which includes a detailed bibliography and a selection of his own stories – from creation myths to a take on the Arabian nights. Yashinsky invites the reader to change and retell these stories, citing the Tuscan proverb that “A story is no good unless you add your own spice to it.” Readers will come away from Suddenly They Heard Footsteps with all the basic tools and the inspiration they need to try storytelling for themselves.