In l972 I moved to Toronto from California and got a summer job at Bolton Camp. It was run by Family Services and the kids were from the poorest parts of the city. Although I had spent time in a California jail after protesting the Vietnam war, been bonked on the head by a French cop in Paris after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, hitchhiked the West Coast many times, and studied Homer and Chaucer in university, none of my varied political and scholarly experiences had prepared me for my miniature lords of misrule. Luckily, I discovered, my semi-feral eight-year-old boys loved to listen to fairy tales – the longer the better.
One night, as we sat around the campfire, I had a revelation. The counsellor was spinning a yarn about Old Man Bolton. He was our local axe-murdering ghost who, after chopping everybody up, had escaped into the forest surrounding the camp. There, the counsellor quietly told us, Old Man Bolton was still limping around culling stray campers.
I was amazed to see that my boys had been transformed into the world’s greatest listeners. A window of time opened, and I understood that my lads hearing summer camp ghost stories were no different than the audience of Greek royalty who heard Homer chant the mighty epics. Even in 1973 the story fire was still burning, the art of storytelling was still alive, and humans – especially my grubby, ardent, hero-hungry boys – had not lost our passion for word-of-mouth stories.
I was hooked. The problem was, although I wanted to learn the storyteller’s mysterious art and even had my own captive audience, I was painfully shy, extremely forgetful and didn’t know any stories.
So I did what people have always done in case of emergency: I went to the library. On my days off, I would drive down to Boys and Girls House and come back to camp with a stack of stories, which I would read aloud at night.
One day that summer, the moment of truth arrived. I’d learned a folk tale in my head and tried telling it to my boys without the book. It began well enough. “Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, and the king went blind. He called his three sons and said, ‘Go find a cure for my blindness.’ ” The first two princes sallied forth, but the third, a lazy, good-for-nothing lad, went out into the garden to nap under his favourite apple tree.
I was just about to tell my boys how this third prince has a hero’s dream, when Frankie, my chief troublemaker, decided it was a good moment to let loose a great and cabin-shaking fart. Pandemonium ensued. I was so mad that, breaking every rule of camp counselling and child-tending protocols, I threw him out of the cabin. Then I continued the story as Frankie banged on the door and yelled that Old Man Bolton was going to chop him up.
Despite the commotion, the remaining boys heard how the third prince listened to his dream, rode forth on the quest-road, conquered evil, got help from his horse of power, married the fairy firebird, and cured his father’s blindness. It’s a hell of a story, and my boys – except Frankie – spent the next day retelling it to each other and trying to spot stray firebirds in the woods.
I didn’t know it then, but I know now: the listener is the hero of the story. Frankie was the third prince! He was the one who most needed to hear the tale. All the daydreamers, the kids who get sent to the office each day, the unregarded kids from the poorest parts of town – and, yes, even that brat who makes rude noises instead of listening politely – all may have the qualities of a hero, if only we can see it in them.
After that summer, I filled my head with folktales and set out on my storyteller’s quest. As for Frankie, I look for him in every audience. I still owe him a fairy tale.