Those Tiny Bits of Beans.
John Weier. Illustrated by David Beyer.
Grades 3 - 5 / Ages 8 - 10.
. . . Oncle Henri felt something nudge his foot under the table. Well, he looked up at Tante Madeline, he was very confused. What was wrong? He had been eating so well. Why had she nudged him? Then, he stopped eating, picked up his knife and started cutting his beans in two. That's what Tante Madeline had told him to do.
JOHN WEIER LIVES IN WINNIPEG, and has published three books of poetry and short stories. Those Tiny Bits of Beans is his first children's book.
Those Tiny Bits of Beans is a folk-tale set in the Red River valley in "the years after the hanging of Louis Riel." That information, along with the French names and Aboriginal characters place it as a story with a Métis origin. The historical setting is quickly established, and a feeling of promise pervades the first few pages.
But soon history is abandoned and the story goes awry. The tale is really about Oncle Henri's penchant for gulping his food whole, his wife Tante Madeline's public embarrassment over this distressing habit, and her plan to guide him decorously through a wedding dinner. Unknown to them, a dog sleeping under the table confuses their secret signals to each other.
Henri and Madeline become so frustrated and angry with each other that they walk out and leave the wedding. They see a dog run out into the field but have no inkling of the role it has just played in their difficulties. The story ends.
But "what happened next?" some children are bound to ask. How did they resolve their problem? How did they learn it was the dog's fault? Early on we hear this is a story that later, when times were not so hard, people (including Henri and Madeline) would laugh about. But we never hear how they gained the knowledge and perspective that allowed this to become a family tale shared and enjoyed in future years.
And the beginning and end of this story do not seem to relate to one another, like an unclosed circle. Marriage, humour, hard times, and changing lifestyles are themes suggested but never explored. We are left unsure what the story is really about. The beans do not play a significant enough role to merit their prominence in the title; the joke is not funny enough to be the central point of the story; and the lack of resolution is puzzling. Weier needed to reshape this story to close the circle before going to print -- it's probably a few re-writes from being finished.
David Beyer, illustrating his third book, has chosen dark, solid colours. The lack of gradation or shading, and the bold black outlines, remind one of a comic book. While overall this has a simple and attractive appeal, at times the exaggerated facial features have a vaguely frightening, mask-like quality.
A handful of words will prove challenging to the competent grade-four reader, but grade three and four students are the right audience. That the story depicts Métis people at an important point in their history (though not much is made of this) may give this book extra appeal to teachers.
Leslie Millar is a substitute teacher and volunteer in Winnipeg Schools.
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