Madeira Mondays: 90’s TV and Rip Van Winkle

This is a blog post about the past.

Yes, you could say that pretty much all of my posts are about the past, but, this one, in particular, is really about the past.

You see, recently I’ve been rewatching a favorite childhood show called Wishbone. Fellow children of the 90’s might also remember this show: about a cute Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Wishbone’ who imagines himself in great works of literature and then acts them out, with himself as the main character. It’s an adorable concept for a show, having a dog acting out classic stories (he wears so many cute outfits!!), and the show creator Rick Duffield explicitly said that he wanted to get kids excited about books and reading:

We believe this show can cultivate a new appetite for reading by making kids think it’s fun to get to know these books (…) it’s intended to be fun, action packed, clever and a way to get their first taste of great stories that can become a valuable educational stepping stone in their lives.

It definitely worked for me. It was one of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) shows, alongside Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton, that helped me fall in love with books.

There are always two plots in every episode of Wishbone. One plot is always about something happening in real-life (perhaps with Wishbone’s owner, a boy called Joe (Jordan Wall) or one of Joe’s friends, his mom Ellen (Mary Chris Wall) who is a librarian, or his wacky neighbor Wanda (Angee Hughes)). Then one plot is always a retelling of a classic story. These two plots are intercut with each other, and there are always parallel themes. For instance, the episode about Robin Hood has Joe helping a cafeteria lady in real-life sneaking food away to give to a homeless shelter etc.

It’s an extremely wholesome show, but not cringe-worthy. It’s sweet. And apparently the show was also known for not shying away from the darker elements of the retold stories (the Joan of Arc episode, for instance, has Joan being burned alive at the stake and the Jekyll and Hyde episode is quite spooky. The episode about West African folktales also talks pretty openly about the cruelties of slavery). A uniting theme across many of the episodes is the power and importance of stories.

Another cool element is that they often have behind-the-scenes footage at the end of each episode where the lighting or sound technicians, or the director etc. explain how they made that episode – which adds another educational layer, as well.

The episode that I wanted to talk about for Madeira Mondays is called ‘Digging up the Past’ from Season 1. In it, Wishbone imagines himself in Rip Van Winkle the famous short story written by American writer Washington Irving in 1819. It’s about a Dutch-American man in Colonial America called Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep in New York’s Catskill Mountains and then wakes up twenty years later…having missed the whole American Revolution. Basically, he wakes up in a new country!

I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original Rip Van Winkle story (although Wishbone has succeeded in making me want to read it!). In the episode, the way that Wishbone addresses the themes of Rip Van Winkle in the present day storyline is by introducing the idea of Joe, the main character, having to do a report for school about something from his grandparents’ childhood that he wishes were still around today. He helpfully runs into an older woman, Dr. Brown (great name, if I do say so myself!), at the library. She is back in town after several decades away and Joe ends up figuring out that she used to live at his house, fifty years ago. Together they try to find a time capsule that she buried in the yard. So all of these intersecting plot lines parallel the story of Rip Van Winkle: a person who, like Dr. Brown, returns to his old village after decades to see that much has changed.

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The Talbot family and friends unearth a time capsule left behind by Dr. Brown. Characters from left to right: Ellen Talbot (Mary Chris Wall), Dr. Thelma Brown (Irma P. Hall), Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), Wishbone (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Soccer’ and voiced by Larry Brantley), Wanda Gilmore (Angee Hughes), Sam Kepler (Christine Abbott) and David Barnes (Adam Springfield).

The character of Rip Van Winkle is obviously played by Wishbone and to see him emerging from a bed of autumn leaves with an enormous fake beard was, obviously, very cute.

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Wishbone emerges as Rip Van Winkle from his long slumber

This episode, and indeed this entire series, is lovely. And, in a way, this episode itself is a time capsule for me personally, because I remember watching it as a kid. Looking at it now, it’s a bit like traveling back in time. Like unearthing something long buried that kind of looks familiar but also isn’t exactly how you recall it. But it also reminds me that while so much has changed about my life (from eight-years-old to twenty-eight – two decades, just like Rip Van Winkle!) there are some things that haven’t: I still love stories generally, especially ones about Colonial America, and I still love Wishbone.

Many of us are Rip Van Winkles right now, I think, because time is passing but we’re hibernating in our homes. And, when we emerge, the world will be different. It might be strange and a bit alien to us, like it was for Rip after his very long nap. But I think, like Rip, we’ll be able to adjust to it. Humans, and dogs, are quite resilient and adaptable. Or at least that’s what Wishbone seems to suggest.

PS Today’s Featured Image is Wishbone as Sherlock Holmes, from Mental Floss

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Louisiana

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. Not only is it jam packed with delicious, flavorful food and music on every corner, there is also such a rich history there. Just have a stroll around the French Quarter and you’ll be able to see (and taste!) aspects of the many different cultures that shaped this unique city: Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, French, Anglo-American and Creole. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind place and I was lucky enough to go back there, for the first time in about ten years, for a family holiday this winter.

While we were there, I paid a visit to the Cabildo, a building that was once the colonial Spanish city hall but is now the home of the Louisiana State History Museum.

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The Louisiana State Museum: The Cabildo

We went in for the afternoon and while there were lots of interesting things to see – including a whole exhibition on the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and its memory in pop culture – the exhibition that really stuck with me was was called: Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana.

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The exhibition at The Cabildo

This is a multimedia exhibition featuring paintings, lithographs, and songs, alongside historical artifacts such as maps and period documents. It follows the story of a man called Juan San Malo, the leader of a runaway slave community in 1780s. But what really struck me was the format of the exhibition, which the museum describes as ‘a conversation between tradition and innovation.’ It’s part of an ongoing series apparently called In Dialogue, which features both traditional history documents (maps etc.) but also contemporary responses to those documents.

I liked this approach for several reasons. For one thing, men like Juan San Malo are usually left out of the traditional historical record. Even if we could find mention of him or runaway men like him, in perhaps letters, diaries, or newspaper ads from the time looking for runaway slaves, these documents would most likely have been authored by wealthy white landowning men, not by San Malo himself.

Also, San Malo was a Creole speaker. (Louisiana Creole was a francophone language created by enslaved Africans who lived on plantations in the region). By featuring many Creole songs in the exhibition, it tells San Malo’s story not only in his own language, but in a rare and endangered language of the area. The songs we hear are like an oral history of the region, an alternative history of New Orleans.

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One of the striking pieces of art featured at the exhibition: Morning Mist in Colony Maron, by Francis X. Pavy, 2017. I am not a visual artist, so this description means little to me, but this piece is described as ‘augmented photographic lithophane in carved acrylic’. All I know is that lithophanes are backlit and several pieces like this were part of the exhibition. I liked the use of shadow, given how little we know about Juan San Malo.

One of the historical artifacts that I especially liked seeing was the ‘diatonic accordion.’ I learned that apparently German immigrants brought accordions to Louisiana and, in the early 20th century, the instrument was adopted by Creole and Cajun musicians.

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German accordion from 1850

Another striking feature of the exhibition was the large altar in the center of it, where you could place offerings or write in a book about ‘a dream of freedom’. This was a fitting element, considering that San Malo, who created one of the largest runaway slave settlements in North America and was eventually hung by Spanish officials, seems to be something of a folk hero and even a saint, who people memorialized and turned to for strength. Words from a Creole song ‘Ourra St. Malo’ (Dirge for San Malo) can be read on the walls nearby.

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The altar in the center of the exhibition

One of the only things that I wished was different about the exhibition is that I wanted to know a bit more about the significance of the altar and how altars fit into Creole customs, because I know that Catholicism had a big influence in New Orleans (but maybe there was that information and I just missed it!). The only other thing that I wished was different was that I simply wanted more of the whole exhibition, as it was really just one room. But there is plenty to see in that room! I left feeling like I had learned something new about 18th century New Orleans and also with many ideas about how history can be communicated to the public, not just with maps and period documents, but with modern art and songs too. I thought about how this exhibition is not simply about one man’s life, but rather about the history of a language. A language which, in itself, IS history. Basically, it gave me a lot to think about! If you are in New Orleans, I would encourage a visit and do let me know what you think of it too.

‘Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana’ runs until May 10, 2020 at The Cabildo.

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!