Of Animal People, Ancient Bavarian Ritual, and Scythe-Wielding Rabbits
My kid loves this book of Richard Scarry nursery rhyme stories that I also had as a girl. Paging through our child's copy brought my own earliest years crashing back to me—not because of the stories, but because of the images—Richard Scarry’s illustrations of the Little Red Hen in her rainbow apron, a crew of rabbits wielding scythes, a pig in a butter churn with a purple balloon tied to it, rolling down the hill where the Big, Bad Wolf stood waiting, in his green top hat.
My son enjoys the book via its pictures, too. He grabs wads of pages in one fist, then leafs through at top speed, pointing at things and demanding rapid-fire identification as we go. I respond: “That’s a mouse driving a yellow truck! That’s a worm in a helicopter that looks like an apple! Those are goats! In, um, lederhosen.”
The book is trippy--and not just for the Proust’s-madeleine way it telescopes me back to the sky-blue shag and worn wooden blocks of my own childhood bedroom.
No, I mean “trippy” in a “Here’s-a-pig-with-a-sausage-stuck-to-its-snout” way.
I don’t remember the plot of this particular story at all, and hell if I’ll read it to our son, but the picture rang alarmingly familiar the moment I spotted it.
But we're here to talk Gingerbread Men. Or—Man. Singular. Thank Christ.
As a kid, "The Gingerbread Man" was my fave, and it's a story with which our child has also developed a fascination.
Meet our main characters: the Little Old Woman and the Little Old Man.
In other stories in this book, there are Three Little Pigs, identified by their species, but here, a pig couple is “Woman” and “Man.”
Okay. A story can have its own world of consistencies, even if…they're completely inconsistent with the rest of the book.
Fair enough. For now.
So the Little Old Woman makes the Gingerbread Man, complete with raisin eyes, whose simple illustration made my young mouth water (I was raised by Unitarian Universalists; raisins were exciting). Then the Gingerbread Man runs off, and the Little Old Woman runs after him.
This makes sense. She baked him. She wants to eat him—or at least catch this culinary monstrosity wrought by her own hands to destroy it before anyone else in this small 18th century European animal-non-animal village sees it and ties her to a stake. She pursues, but can’t catch him. He’s fast.
Her husband Pig Franklin can’t do it, either.
Then it starts to get weird.
The Gingerbread Man runs by a “field of mowers”—rabbits carrying scythes and pitchforks. Now, I’m less clear on their motivation to actually give chase here. Rabbits. Eat. Vegetables…although they are jumpy creatures, apt to flee a strange and unholy sight such as this, and perhaps they quaked at that fell glow surrounding our antihero, and…
No, I don’t know why they’d chase a gingerbread man.
But this moment demonstrates his swiftness, eluding creatures known for their own swiftness; even...
...pitching one up in the air somehow, I don’t know, after doubling back and running under his feet for kicks? I really don’t know.
But, message sent.
Gingerbread Man: He eludes rabbits, animals known for speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
He’s fast. What could possibly have a better chance at catching him?
How about…a cow?
Really, Richard Scarry.
So, spoiler: He gets away from the cow, whose motivation for chasing him would be…I don’t know what.
And then, he brags about it.
He gets away from the picnicking bears, and meets...only the coolest fox.
...who’s not doing anything but hard-core chilling, in his Norwegian-I-guess vest and groovy purple hat with a feather.
By the way: This story really creates a parental challenge when my son points to each character and demands identification. Fox is a fox—albeit a foxy fox. The bears were bears. But the pigs? As we’ve discussed: Not pigs. And the rabbits? Jesus, woman, get it straight; they're mowers—which I know will someday be a really super useful point of identification for my kid the next time he’s in late-19th century Bavaria.
So, Fox tells him he'll carry him across the river, (heh, heh).
And it’s this illustration that underscores something universally weird about Richard Scarry stories: On the rare occasion characters really interact, they never make eye contact. Look at Fox. He’s gazing at, like, a patch of grass? Or water, maybe?, as he talks to Gingerbread Man. Maybe he's just thee worst liar.
And of course, Gingerbread Man’s expression never changes from that disturbing open-mouthed toothless grin. Although TEETH WOULD BE A THOUSAND TIMES WORSE.
As a kid, it was the push-pull of the friendly void of this grin that hounded me, and it had to be what kept me coming back to this story—the Gingerbread Man’s unceasing clown grin, fixed by the Little Old Woman’s dark gastronomy.
Oh, this is nice.
As the Gingerbread Man sails along on the Fox’s pimp-hat, a charming little frog in a red sailor suit paddles a canoe nearby, clearly just chuffed to watch the idiot cookiebeast meet his sure demise.
His pack of pursuers, standing in a clump, do the same, wearing their own glazed expressions.
And he meets it. He meets it hardcore.
Wearing that same idiotic grin. How many times did I flip back to this spot in the book to make myself stare, once again, in thrill and horror?
...like the rest of the animals stare, as the Fox emerges, fully dressed and dripping, from the river. They are shocked. Shocked. “How could the Fox just…eat him like that, instead of locking him into our Wickerman Basket to ensure the fall harvest?”
You can see it in her expression:
Now the Little Old Woman will have to start all over again on another one.