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the corn grows ripe

21 august 2011

Dorothy Rhoads's The Corn Grows Ripe was a Newbery runner-up in 1957, an era when many Americans took the mission of the United Nations earnestly. Representations of foreign Others filled American classrooms, laying the grounds for a much more thoroughgoing multiculturalism among the baby-boom generation when we grew up. If The Corn Grows Ripe is a bit of a curiosity 55 years after its publication, it's because it's so serenely matter-of-fact in its multiculturalism. The Mayans of The Corn Grows Ripe are neither ignorant "natives" (as they might have been in 1927) nor oppressed innocents struggling to break free of Western hegemony (as they might have been in 1987). They're corn farmers, and they get on with life.

If The Corn Grows Ripe has a weakness, it's that expository matter-of-factness. Young protagonist Tigre and his family do this that suburban Americans don't do; then they do that that we also don't do; then they do the other thing that we certainly don't do, either. There's the occasional contretemps (usually weather-related), but there's no dramatic tension in the story – no opposed set of wills that produces the pleasurable conflict that can drive even a simple, upbeat children's book.

Instead, Rhoads and illustrator Jean Charlot immerse us in the seasonal routines of Tigre's Mayan community. Tigre's people practice slash-and-burn agriculture. This sounds, well, unsound. But Tigre's father frames the practice in terms of sustainability. "Men use the land for a few years and return it to bush. Land gets weary too and needs rest" (26). As Rhoads's narrator puts it:

The land belonged to the gods, not to man. Men only borrowed it for a little because of their hunger, always asking the gods for permission. And after a few years they returned the land and made new clearings somewhere else. For two thousand years Tigre's people had used the land and returned it. And, always borrowing, never possessing or destroying, they had passed it on to their children as rich as it had been passed on to them. (21-22)

I'm not agronomist enough to know whether Rhoads's contention is correct. But I'm just barely rhetorician and literary historian enough to note that in terms of the ideas that circulate in American children's books, her assertion is part of the swelling mainstream of the later 20th century. The implicit contrast is to cultures that do possess and destroy. Indians borrow and return; unnamed others take and keep. Those others, though unnamed, are the child audience for the book.

Yet of course The Corn Grows Ripe doesn't make its readers feel bad about themselves. That's because the identification with the boy Tigre across cultures is stronger than the tacit identification with the book's possessor-destroyers. A kid in the cornfields of Iowa doesn't think "I'm a destroyer"; he thinks "I'm Tigre, a strong, clever kid who can solve problems by himself." As Rhoads encourages this identification, a cross-cultural bonding grows up between the real reader and the imaginary Tigre. Through fiction, respect for the Other is born.

Tigre is figured as a child of innate aptitude. (A meritocracy of aptitude was another mainstream value of the year 1957.) "An almost inherited ability for learning persists in a few. There are always one or two above the others, with a passion and a quickness for study" (44). Tigre is devoted to reason, and tries to understand the world in ways that transcend his family's religious fatalism. In this way, he is implicitly figured as "Western." But the theme is not overdone. For the most part, Tigre functions as a model child in his syncretic culture, one that mixes Mayan and Spanish folkways, Catholic and pre-Columbian religions.

The Corn Grows Ripe is a handsome, large-scale book for its day, printed on heavy paper. Charlot's stylized pictures, in greyscale and one color (green), draw from classical Mayan art to give a sense of a people ancient in creativity and wisdom. The Viking hardcover, which I read in a fourth printing I got from the library of Dallas Baptist University, is a lovely artifact. The Corn Grows Ripe remains in print, in a cheaper paperback with lowerbrow cover art; but the older edition is worth looking for.

Rhoads, Dorothy. The Corn Grows Ripe. Illustrated by Jean Charlot. 1956. New York: Viking, 1966.