The Practical Princess

NOTE: This is a work in progress but I hit “publish” anyway because I promised…

Åt some point in my childhood, probably around age 6 or 7ish, I received this children’s book as a gift — The Practical Princess — and it immediately became my favorite book of all time, ever. Written by Jay Williams, and illustrated by Friso Henstra, it is an astonishingly beautiful and, well, very practical children’s book; a huge departure from the typical literary fare for kids of that era, revolutionary for its time. Yet it only became apparent a few days ago in therapy how very deeply impactful it had been on my development as a person, after relating yet another anecdote about escaping harm with quick-thinking.

I have been a voracious reader from the days of  Fun With Dick and Jane on, often climbing the tallest tree in my yard and precariously perching in a crook of the tree at the top, so I could read without being reached  — for chores, punishment, or random admonishments — and would stay there all day reading Nancy Drew mysteries, one after another.  Coincidentally, the first thing I thought when I first met my therapist years ago was that she looked a lot like my vision of Nancy Drew as derived from the era in which my books had been illustrated — Nancy Drew gets a new look for each generation — and I found this resemblance extremely comforting, fateful even.

I also very much identified with Ramona The Pest, and admittedly still do. I’d always marvel at the kids who seemed so wise and composed, like old souls or some such thing; my way seems fated to bumble through life blurting out whatever I am thinking, like last night at dinner with friends, when during a discussion about something else entirely I blurted, “I went for a walk in the woods naked the other day with a friend”, and it took Larnett 5 minutes to process it, pondering, pausing, only later asking, “WHAT? Did you just really say what I think you did?”, but then Larnett shows up along with Amy G. in a previous post, for saying “Next to ‘Free Association’ in the dictionary there is a picture of Mo”, so, there’s that.

But the benign and innocent world of Ramona The Pest is a far cry from the topic of this post — I segue as much as I free associate and blurt.

Years ago I had learned in a trial by fire — a studio fire to be exact, of which I bear scars still in the form of often irrational fears which, left unchallenged daily, could well lead to agoraphobia — that I tend to automatically react with lightening fast and flawless judgement in times of emergency. Who knew? Of all the fallout from that trauma, this one fact is the most palatable, resonant and important, yet in looking back, during therapy this recent morning, I realized that I have at many times in the past displayed precise and immediate assessment of danger — whether it be by way of people or situations — and subsequently react with instinctual and rapid plan-making and execution, saving myself (three times, that I can recall) from what may well have been gang rape, death by fire, and incalculable other potential harms.

This story absolutely assisted in facilitating that reaction. No one thing can determine who and how we are, and yet at a prime developmental period this book absolutely contributed to this, and also to my eventual feminist philosophy and art, as it made it glamorous, perhaps, to be practical and fearless. My fearlessness was obvious from a very young age and did not exactly endear me to my father, but that’s a whole other story.

In googling the author today I came upon this: “Williams was also one of the first and best of the authors who responded to the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s by writing a new kind of fairy tale. Though his stories are traditional in their choice of episode and motif, they also overturn nearly all the conventions of the genre to illustrate new ideas about women.

Williams’s famously funny and very influential picture book The Practical Princess (1969) reworked both ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Its heroine, Princess Bedelia, has been promised to a dragon, but instead of waiting for a prince to rescue her, she explodes the monster by arranging for a straw figure filled with gunpowder to be dressed in her court robes and thrown into its open mouth… Though there are now many stories like these in print, when The Practical Princess and Petronella first appeared, they caused a minor sensation, and as a result both readers and writers now approach fairy tales in new and interesting ways.” [source]

The dinosaur tracks trail/park at first seems merely like a little parking area on RT 5 along the Connecticut river in Holyoke, just over the Easthampton line. It’s a little slip of a parking area, an arc one eases into alongside Rt 5, with little fanfare. But it then leads to a little path through some fairly dense woods and down to the Connecticut river, with big flat-ish rocks which reach out into and over the water, on which one can sit or stand. Or one can walk the rocks like a ramp down into the water and wet one’s ankles, or even throw a fishing line perhaps.

There is an informational sign encased in lucite in the parking area which explains the who, what, where, why and how of the tracks but I forget what it says and have never been back — I cannot possibly ever go back — since the beautiful early summer day when I last visited, and so I have no picture to post of it. At the beginning of the wooded path, in an open and sunny clearing, said dinosaur tracks are perceptible, if one is paying attention and is looking for them, often marked by graffiti. Sadly, it is also clear where some of the tracks have been completely unearthed and likely carted off, probably for sale at whichever black market such things are sold.

After passing the tracks, the trail leads through a fairly densely wooded area for about 30-50 yards (I am terrible at measuring distances) through trees neither particularly tall or short, down to the Connecticut River to the rocky outcroppings at which point one is facing the river, from which point one can clearly see across the river to the houses on the other side, and one imagines those riverfront people can likely see those of us on this side of the river.
At times the parking lot is full, and it seems there is always a Subaru something-er with roof racks in the lot, as kayakers seem to use this spot as frequently as hikers, families, and sometimes people walking alone or mothers with a child or two. It seems safe, an innocent diversion even, far from the flats of Holyoke where I have my studio and where I exercise increased caution. So I thought nothing of taking my dog Jamoka for a walk there, that day a few years ago, a day much like today… beautiful, breezy, sunny, quiet…
TO BE CONTINUED…. tomorrow perhaps, after I scan more images from my book and write the rest of it.
READ PART II

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