by Rafe Martin. Reviewed by Rosann Kent.
Rafe Martin has taken thousands of years of Seneca legends and woven fourteen of them into a fascinating, seamless narrative, complete with illustrations of stunning paper-cut sculptures by Calvin Nicholls, that makes this book worthy of a coffee table or a child’s bookcase. But that is not why I fell in love with it.
I want to save the specifics of the plot for you, too, to savor, but I can tell you that The World Before This One (published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., 2002) is more than a novel or a cleverly packaged folklore collection. For me as a beginning storyteller, it is the story of Story, that ancient force that lives in us and among us, binding us together or tearing us apart.
Only a few pages into the book, I realized I was holding something more than merely ink on paper. The words and wood cuts drew me into a sort of aboriginal dreamtime, that ineffable invitation that I usually feel only when I am in the presence of a living and powerful storyteller—or walking in the woods where stones and streams speak a language of their own.
In this novel, a Storytelling Stone does indeed speak to Crow, the young protagonist who, along with his grandmother, has been ostracized by the tribe and faces starvation as well as isolation. As Crow enters more deeply into the stone’s mesmerizing stories of Long Ago, he spends less and less time hunting. Although he hopes to one day rejoin the war-like tribe by proving his skills with the bow, soon he finds he can’t hunt at all for “it was too easy for him to imagine birds with stories of their own.” With this one sentence, Martin not only articulates one of the underlying themes of the book, but also what I consider a basic mechanism by which storytelling heals: Stories foster empathy.
Each chapter provides lessons for us as contemporary storytellers. For example, Crow soon learns that becoming a storyteller carries its own set of responsibilities. “The stone offered wisdom, but it also put tough burdens on him.” We, too, know the discipline of listening, of discernment, of selecting the right story for the right person at the right time and then sharing it in the right way.
Crow’s connection with the magic of story deepens as he is transported in his dreams and visions by a crow who issues the call to Story we have all heard ourselves: “Lift your voice. There are ways and ways and ways.”
One of my favorite light moments in the books occurs when the Storytelling Stone orders the warriors to come out of hiding and listen to the stories and “set a few gifts on me. Stories should be respected and paid for.” Maybe we could work that phrase into our contracts!
You may find more information at Rafe Martin’s website: www.rafemartin.com. Rosann Kent is a graduate student in storytelling at East Tennessee State University; Rosannkent@ yahoo.com.