The United States is a land of myths and tall tales but other than a handful of Native American stories, I don’t know if we have any honest to goodness fairy tales that originated in the States. Maybe the closest we have is L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy the closest we come to having our own enchanted princess. Of course, our princess is a farm girl and she never gets to become a princess or meet her one, true prince. The United States is full of tall tales like Paul Bunyon and Babe, Uncle Sam, Johnny Appleseed and they’re all tied into a basic fabric of the American experience but where are our princesses, evil step mothers, magical worlds and happily ever afters?
Like Dorothy, Jeremy Love’s lead character Lee Wagstaff is no royal princess. In Love’s Bayou, Lee is a little black girl growing up in 1931 Charon, Mississippi. Even almost 70 years after the Civil War, people’s feelings and attituded haven’t changed and the old ugliness still existed. Black boys are still killed for whistling at white women and black men are still hung mostly for not being white. The ugliness even exists among the white children like Lee’s friend Lily. At the beginning of Bayou, their friendship looks like it may actually be about more than skin color but when Lily’s locket gets lost in the bayou, it’s too easy for Lily and her mother to accuse Lee of theft. And who’s going to be believed in the south in 1931: a white girl or a black girl? After Lily goes missing, Lee’s father is quickly judged to be the killer. The story begins as a tale of social and racial injustice but after her father’s imprisoned, Lee goes on a quest to find Lily and prove her and her father’s innocence. Going to the bayou to look for clues, Lee falls in and effectively stumbles through the looking glass to find her own Wonderland.
That Lee has to enter an imaginary world to find justice is exhilarating and frightening. Like Wizard of Oz or Alice In Wonderland, Lee’s bayou is a magical place, filled with giants, wonderful creatures and unseen dangers. It’s a world of imagination, maybe even the way that she sees reality around her without the firm and solid anchor of her father. The bayou is filled with the magic similar to yellow brick roads and mad hatters and their tea parties. But unlike Dorothy who ends up in Oz by chance, Lee has to go to the bayou because it’s where her justice begins. She cannot find what she is looking for without first visiting another world, an imaginary world at that.
Love’s story reminds us of the searing ignorance that exists both in our present and our past. If that hatred didn’t still exist in some people today, his story would be a wonderful curiosity and just be a nice fairy tale about a girl and her journey into another world. Of course if that was all his story was, there would have been no reason to tell it because it’s already been told by Frank L. Baum and Lewis Carroll. The ignorance that Love is depicting is not just centered on 1931 and earlier. We still live with it at our work, at our play and maybe even in our home. It is still out there and Love, through the false but easy accusations hurled at Lee and her father, shows us that it still exists. It may be based on more than just color of our skin but is still there when it comes to gender, race, religion or even something as silly as favorite sports teams. The unexplainable prejudice is still present and Love’s story reminds us that it is still there even if it is less overt now than it was in 1931.
For a fairy tale to really succeed though, it needs to take us far away from an oppressive reality. The magical parts of fairy tales are countered by Depression era farming or having to live as a servant of a evil step-mother and step sisters. At the beginning of the book, Lee discovers the portal through the bayou but it is only after Lily disappears and her father is jailed that Lee defiantly jumps into the portal, determined to find out what awaits her on the other side. On the other side of the bayou is Bayou, a giant of a man who fishes her out of the water. A gentle soul, Bayou safely guides Lee through his world, protecting her when he can from other giants, sheriffs with dog heads, and white hooded locals who are just looking for a reason to string Bayou up. The magical realm that Lee discovers unfortunately is not all that different from her own.
Bayou Volume One
Written and Drawn by: Jeremy Love
Colored by: Patrick Morgan