- Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-first Century
Yashinsky calls himself a "storm fool," a wanderer who carries tales from one place to another, often blown in by bad weather. This modern-day storyteller from Toronto has fooled himself through Canada and the United States and across the great ocean. In the first 184 pages he describes his narrative adventures, interwoven with suggestions on the art of storytelling. The next 60 pages are devoted to seven original texts, including his book-length tale "The Storyteller at Fault" (published under the same title by Ragweed Press in 1992).
He proposes a challenging quest, "to find the stories that will mend the world," and details his own personal odyssey over almost three decades as an internationally recognized storyteller, organizer, and prolific writer. This book, his sixth, offers a passionate retrospective of his own work. What it lacks in scholarly notations and indexes is partially balanced by his direct experiences and examples. He does include an annotated list of works cited and a useful ten-page discussion of storytelling resources, emphasizing books that have influenced him directly.
Throughout the book Yashinsky never strays far from his own frankly subjective thoughts and experiences, which are often both entertaining and illuminating. For example, in his one-paragraph "Afterword" he describes a young listener who shouts out, "Never finish!" and brings it back to this book's title by suggesting that "stories let us hear the footsteps of our own transformation coming towards us on the pathway of everyday life" (293). This personal approach is both the strength and the weakness of Suddenly They Heard Footsteps.
Dan Yashinsky is an engaging writer and teller, which makes much of the book a pleasure to read. It flows from one chapter to another, covering topics that have fascinated him throughout his long career, especially the importance of skilled mentors as models and trainers, the place of community as the lifeblood of storytelling (as it always has been), the abiding value of careful listening by tellers and listeners, and of course the stories themselves. He is also very fond of the guiding metaphor of Scheherazade as a life-saving storyteller. Yashinsky plays with endless variations on these themes throughout the book in his zeal to stress the importance of stories and storytelling.
In his preface Yashinsky situates his book among "our common elders," especially Ruth Sawyer, whose seminal book, The Way of the Storyteller (1942), [End Page 411] was one of the sparks for educated tellers in schools and libraries in the early part of the twentieth century. Sawyer and more recent tellers/writers like Toronto's Alice Kane and Joan Bodger were central in "making storytelling a living art for centuries" (xvii). Yashinsky also honors oral masters like Angela Sidney, a Tagish elder from the Yukon, and Joe Neil MacNeil, a master teller in Gaelic from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. At times Yashinsky suggests that his own book is "an honour song for our storytelling ancestors and an invitation for you to join the circle" (xviii), a sentiment that is most familiar in self-conscious contemporary storytelling.
In his introductory chapter, "Suddenly They Heard Footsteps," he relates one of many of his family anecdotes: His three-year-old son was drifting off to sleep as the boy's mother told him a deliberately monotonous story about various animals falling asleep. The boy suddenly roused himself and called out, "Then suddenly they heard footsteps!" And the story found new life. This is one of the central points, reiterated throughout the book-that even the frailest story can be brought to life by a fresh perspective, a renewed narration, an unexpected turn of events from either teller or listener.
The thirteen chapters take us on challenging adventures. To make his observations come to life, Yashinsky includes seven of his own creations-some loosely based on old stories and others spun entirely from his vivid imagination-though he never forgets tradition entirely. These make for interesting reading and are available for...