Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast
Birds can represent the fluttering, darting thoughts of intuition. This is why little birds helped Cinderella help herself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

#139 Jouanah: A Hmong Cinderella (1996)


"Your daughter, not mine, must cut the wood
and cook the meals!" yelled the
stepmother.
Illustrated by O'Brien, A.S.

Once upon a time, in a "sun-splashed clearing high in the mountains of the ancient homeland of the Hmong, there lived a farmer, his wife, and beautiful girl, named Jouanah."  The family worked very hard to provide for themselves, but they were very poor. They had no cow, which would have been a big help.  There came a day when the man decided that he would buy one.  So  off the family went.  But when they got to the place,  " to their surprise, they found only one cow for sale, and already another man was bargaining for it."  The fellow who was selling the cow now saw a chance to make a good profit, so he gathered a crowd by announcing there would be a contest.  The man who could swallow a huge bowl of steaming hot soup with rice first, would be allowed to buy the cow. So both men were served, and each blew and sipped and blew some more. But the other man cheated, and when the farmer looked away, trickled some cold water into his own bowl, then drained it down. Now the family went home, downhearted and discouraged.  As the walked, the mother said, "We must have a cow to plow our fields and carry the grain.  Let me become a cow for awhile to help bring in the crops.  You can care for me and we will all have a good life." Now her husband quite readily agreed to this.  He "took three vines and wound them three times around his wife's ankles, three times around her wrists, and three times around her head. In a flash of lightening, and a clap of thunder, the wife became a cow." He took the cow home and when Jouanah ran out in delight to see the animal, her father said,
"This cow is your mother." The child did not, at first, understand.  Then her father explained, and told her to lead the gentle beast out to the fields.  Jouanah cried all the way. Every day, she spent in the pasture with her mother, bringing her spindle with its silken tow.  She struggled with learning to spin it, so her mother, the cow, spun it upon her horns. Each day, Jouanah carried home skiens of spun silk, ready to weave into cloth for her dowry. The farm began to prosper, but now the farmer betrayed his wife.  He did not restore her to her human form as he should have — instead he married another woman! The new wife was an opportunistic one, and soon settled her own daugher into Jouanah's place.  She hated the strange cow that Jouanah doted on, and when she found that it spun the girl's thread, declared that she was a lazy good-for-nothing and would work harder from now on. She ordered her stepdaughter to get busy, saying to her new husband, "Your Jouanah— not my Ding— will cut the wood, cook the meals, and keep this house clean from now on." The farmer did nothing to defend his daughter.  Ding sulked and dawdled all the more over the few chores she did do.  One morning the stepmother said to Jouanah's father," Husband, life with you makes me so sick, I am going to die," And then she flailed around, pretending that she was really dying.  When the man asked what he could do to prevent her from dying, she said,"Go to the giant dead tree at the forest's edge.  Its spirit will tell you how to help me." So the man started out walking, and, as soon as he was out of the house, the wicked woman ran ahead. She climbed up the tree and hid there. When the farmer came and asked the tree what do to, she called down, in a ghostly voice,"You have a wise wife, my good man.  But those rolls of thread Jouanah brings home.  Burn all the thread and your wife will be healed." This seemed odd to the man, and he thought about Jouanah losing all of the cloth of her dowry, but still, he lighted the spools on fire.  "They flared into a million sparks." But somehow, Jouanah brought home more each day.  So Ding went out and spied on her, and told her mother that it was the cow who did the spinning.  And the woman played sick again, and begged her husband to get counsel from the spirit of the tree again. This time, she moaned and groaned in the spirit's voice, and advised the man,"You have a wise wife, my good man, but only one thing can save her life. The good spirits of your ancestors demand the sacrifice of a cow. Kill the cow and your wife will not die." Well, the man did not like this advice, but neither did he trouble himself too much over it.  What did he need that old cow for anyway, now that his farm was so prosperous.  He would butcher it and be done.  But when he went out to his farmyard, he had an unfortunate surprise: his real wife, the gentle cow, had "died of a broken heart."  Her buried her in the forest, and now" night after night, Jouanah and her father sat on a log near the place where they buried the gentle cow.  It was a very sad time. The birds hushed their songs. The butterflies folded their radiant wings. The despairing husband soon died, and the gentle Jouanah became even more silent."  Now the stepmother had no restraint to her cruelty.  She starved the girl, and kept her at her tasks all day. Even when the New Year came, and all of the people celebrated, she did not relent.  On the day of the village celebration, she "called to Jouanah. 'Girl,' she ordered, see that the rice is clean and ready for dinner.' Cruelly, the stepmother had stirred thousands of tiny pebbles into the basket of rice kernels." Her stepdaughter spent two whole days picking those pebbles out again.  On the morning of the third day, finished at last, Jouanah sat down with her sewing. As she put her hands in, she could feel the soft piece of cowhide she had kept. It brought a flood of images of her mother to her mind, and "suddenly, there in the basket appeared a skirt and a blouse and an apron embroidered with delicate needlework. Beneath them were a glorious headdress and two exquisite purses bordered with coins that jingled musically." Best of all was the spectacular silver necklace and collar. It glittered in the sun. The accordian skirt flared wide when she tried it on, and she spun like a brightly colored top. She heard the voice of her mother say,"My daughter, put them on and hurry to the festival!" So Jouanah did just that. She wondered if the townspeople would know who she was. All of the young men stared discreetly at her, and she blushed to see them do so. And when the wealthy and wise man Shee-Nang appeared, and started to play his flute, all the girls clustered around. But his eyes found those of Jouanah, just for a moment. Then they each looked away. Just then, Jouanah saw her stepmother and stepsister  She knew then that she must return home immediately, or she would not have dinner ready in time.  But in her haste, she stepped in a mud puddle, and one of her embroidered slippers was lost.  She did not realize that Shee-Nang had watched her flee, or that he knew something of her life.  He followed her — but it was too late.  The only thing he could see was a dainty shoe, lost in the mud.  He picked it up, and determined to find the girl who had lost it.  His search took him from village to village, but nowhere could he find that maiden. Finally, he arrived at Jouanah's house. Of course, her stepmother pushed her daughter, Ding, before him, calling "Daughter, come!" But to her disgust, Jouanah came as well! She tried to push her away, but Shee-Nang insisted that she stay. So the stepmother decided to delay the shoe trial by inviting the man to dinner.  He agreed,and soon was seated at the table. Now the woman rushed into the kitchen, and quickly fixed two different plates of food. The first was of "tasty rice with meat, and the other of dry bones and hulls." She did not light any lamps, so  that the food could not be seen. She gave Jouanah the plate of hulls, and hoped no one would notice. But Shee-Nang did notice, and insisted that she light the lamps. As soon as there was light to see by, he recognized Jouanah. "No need for words; their hearts touched. The village, they knew, would bless their love." So Jouanah took the only possession she had: her mother's sewing kit, and walked out the door with Shee-Nang.  Right before her stepmother's eyes "the couple disappeared into the purple shadows of the warm, fragrant night." And, "as far as anyone knows, the stepmother and the lazy Ding are still standing at the door of the house, plotting and scheming, making endless misery for only themselves." But the spirit of Jouanah's mother remained with her throughout her life. 
From: Coburn, J.R. & Lee, T.C. (1994) Jouanah: A Hmong Cinderella. CA: Shen's Books
Notes: The significance of the cow spinning is, I believe, quite important.  Spinning was the only way to make enough thread to weave into cloth, so the burning of the silk thread would have been quite a serious loss. A spindle is the tool used to spin thread; tow is the bundle of raw fibers waiting to be spun. 
Montessori Connection: Comparison of 2 countries: Norway and Cambodia. 
1. Read this story.
2. Read yesterday's story, Katie Woodencloak. 
3. Note the similarities. 
4. Why do you think that cows and bulls were so important in people's lives?
5. Is there an animal that is important to you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This story is good but sad. I'm hmong myself and I've seen part of a movie that is almost exactly this. I don't remember the title but it was sad.