Monday, January 29, 2007

Thunder Rose

by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Coretta Scott King Award Honor book 2003.

I found this book in the book store last weekend while looking for a fairy tale for Buddy Boy. It’s not really a fairy tale, but a tall tale. I bought it anyway because I was so enchanted with this powerful heroine. The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are strikingly beautiful. Light glows from the rich brown faces of Rose and her family. Gentleness, loving-kindness, joy in working in the world and family togetherness are celebrated in the colorful, moving paintings. The egg-shell blue of the Texas sky is perfectly balanced with the brown of cattle and dusty streets. Although the text is complex and full of advanced vocabulary like “contemplations”, “cataclysmic”, “devastation”, “parched”, “hooligans”, “cantankerous” and “varmint” a young child can follow the story just by studying at the artwork.

“Thunder Rose was the first child born free and easy to Jackson and Millicent MacGruder.” This opening sentence sets the stage for a girl wonder who transforms their world. It is easy to breeze right over this opening without really thinking about what it means but I think it is significant that she is proclaimed to be the first one born free and easy. She is born during a thunder storm and she sits right up and grabs a bolt of lightening and sets it on her shoulder. The picture echoes a nativity scene, with adoring adults gazing at a child encircled in light. I noticed this same technique of implying greatness by associating the favored child with holiness in Jacob Lawrences’ Harriet and the Promised Land. Thunder Rose speaks from the moment of her birth and chooses her own name. This reminds me of Demi’s The Legend of St. Nicholas, where Nicholas is said to stand up on his first day of life and speak. Nicholas refuses to nurse in order to pray and is known for singing and reciting scriptures. Thunder Rose nurses politely from her mother but needs more sustenance and so she goes out and lifts a cow to drink it almost dry. She was “as pretty as a picture, had the sweetest disposition, but don’t let yourself be misled, that child was full of lightening and thunder.”

Right from the beginning it is clear that she is destined for greatness. Her parents love and adore her, and it their love and “watchful splendor” that enables them to sing a lullaby with such power; “passed down through the ages sweet and true” that Rose takes it into her heart and holds it there for future strength and grace. She says,
“It’s giving me a fortunate feeling rumbling deep in the pit of me. I’ll register it here at the bull’s-eye set in the center of my heart, and see what I can do with it one day!”
This is the key to all her triumphs of the future – her parents’ love has graced her with a song of grace and power. I just love the illustration on this page. Her parents and the doctor’s faces are full of joy and delight as they sing to her. She sits up on the quilted bed with her newborn’s chubby thighs, curved belly, ribs sticking out and her hair in coiling ringlets of beauty bursting out all over her head. She is an infant attuned to receiving their love while at the same time she sits up with a straight and purposeful backbone. Lightening cracks in the window behind them.

As she grows she hums a tune while doing her chores. She grows up “more than good and strong.” She plays with scrap iron, bends it into a thunderbolt and builds a fence at the age of five. She wrestles a stampeding herd of wild longhorn steer and brings them home for her parents. She tames the biggest lead steer with a song, causing him to become her loyal friend. She invents barb wire to make a holding pen for the herd. On her first trip to take the cattle to Abilene she captures a gang of desperadoes, ties them up in iron and drops them at the jail. Having conquered all who stand in her way, she looks to take on the killing drought that causes even the rocks to cry out in thirst. Rose stretches out her lasso made of iron rods and catches a cloud in the sky, squeezing it for water. This results in tornados rising, and Rose meets her greatest challenge.

She stands in the face of two tornados coming at her from opposite directions. This is really the best part of this story; when Rose is faced with her greatest challenge what does she do? She sits back and thinks it through. She admits that it is bigger than her and she doesn’t know what to do. She waits. Zen in a tall tale. She calmly calls out to the storm:
“I could ride at least one of you out to the end of time! But I’ve got this fortunate feeling rumbling deep in the pit of me, and I see what I am to do with it this day!”
Then she opens her arms wide and opens her mouth and begins to sing. She defeats the demons of the air by thinking, talking, opening herself, reaching deep into her heart, and singing.
“Oh how her voice rang out so clear and real and true. It flowed like a healing river in the breathing air around her. Those tornadoes, calmed by her song, stopped their churning masses and raged no more. And, gently as a baby’s bath, a soft, drenching-and-soaking rain fell. …That mighty, mighty song pressing on the bull’s-eye that was set at the center of her heart."
Rose is a hero that transforms her world through kindness, boldness, determined attention, thoughtfulness and song. She receives love, treasures it, opens her heart and releases her power. We need more heroes like Thunder Rose.


kim said...

Our children have just got to get together.

Love this, will get it.

Of course, it is very much a parallel of the feats of Pecos Bill, and, interestingly, is quite reminiscent of a Prince tune, done with Mavis Staples years ago. (I often try to speak of this with others, and when I was fiction editing, sought to have a new writer see the connections between her work and this, for the sheer largess and divinely inspired power of the female character, but, alas, seems I'm the only one for whom the song has lingered, and plays large. :)

Melody Cool

Day I was born
there were tidal waves,
Whole town went under,
Nobody saved

At every funeral it rained,
Every time I sang
Melody Cool


Okay, so I only remembered the macabre aspect, true, but she really is quite like Thunder Rose, and if you're familiar with Mavis Staples' voice, whoomp! That woman packs a wallop!

cloudscome said...

Kim I am so glad you mentioned that. I don't remember that song but I will look for it. I was coming back to this post this morning to edit it and add a suggestion to put TR in a tall tale study unit for 3rd or 4th grade. I think it would make a nice companion to Pecos Bill, John Henry, Casey Jones (I Dream of Trains), Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, etc. The source of her power and her problem solving strategies are so distinctive and wonderful. I would love to hear kids discussing it!

I am also thinking of the similarities between TR and Harriet Tubman shown in the Jacob Lawrence book and how they are presented as Christ figures. Studying the cover of Thunder Rose I am struck by how she is shown in the classic "Christ preshadowing the cross" pose. Messiah as a Black girl/woman. A theme worth pursuing!