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Marvels & Tales 17.2 (2003) 288-292
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Scottish Traveller Tales: Lives Shaped through Stories. By Donald Braid. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 2002. xiii + 313 pp.
The translation of a PhD thesis into a book is a precarious, and not always successful, undertaking. What may have satisfied a dissertation director, an advisory committee, and a small group of readers as regards contents, originality, structure, tone, and style of the issues discussed and the arguments advanced and made persuasive, often fails to impress a non-academic audience. The doctoral thesis submitted by Donald Braid and approved by Indiana University in 1996, with the title "The Negotiation of Meaning and Identity in the Narratives of the Travelling People of Scotland," may therefore well have raised an eyebrow or two when considered for publication outside its original domicile. Fortunately, the intellectual preciousness of the title did not deter the University of Mississippi Press from turning the thesis into a book called Scottish Traveller Tales, with the telling, but somewhat one-sided subtitle Lives Shaped through Stories, and the editors at the Press responsible for commissioning and then nursing it through the preparatory phase are to be congratulated on having had the foresight necessary to recognize this work's potentially wider appeal.
What has struck this reader from the beginning and has accompanied his reactions throughout his reading performance is the unmistakable fact that the narrative of this book is in itself a personal experience story and that consequently the frequent use of the first person singular pronoun in conveying the author's voice is not incongruous or inappropriate but well suited in the voicing of his account. (This reviewer has not seen the original thesis, but if the dissertation director and other guiding hands in the Folklore Institute permitted this usage in the dissertation even in its academic guise, they should be applauded likewise for their tolerance.) In the kind of book which the thesis has become it does, of course, not jar at all.
The autobiographical mode of presentation which this stylistic usage allows is, not unexpectedly, particularly noticeable in the "Introduction" (1-50) which, in the course of narrating the "genesis" of the book, relates how the physicist and engineering technician Donald Braid, having turned storyteller and investigator of oral storytelling, is directed by the legendary Hamish Henderson to Duncan Williamson, one of the great Traveller storytellers of our time, and--how is this for effectiveness?--sitting on his backpack by the roadside reading one of Duncan's books in preparation for his first encounter, is observed by the storyteller himself who, approaching him, addresses him with the words, "What do you think of my book? I am Duncan Williamson" (5). No wonder Duncan becomes the door through which Braid enters the world of Scottish Traveller storytelling and also becomes his foremost mentor, both as a frequent performer of stories and a knowledgeable, thoughtful historian, [End Page 288] liturgist, participating observer and interpreter of the realm and practice of oral narration among the Travellers of Scotland.
Listening to and recording Williamson's--also others' but mainly Williamson's--stories, songs, observations, Braid's special concern is with questions of the Traveller identity, both with regard to individuals and to a culture within, or on the periphery of, the dominant culture of a settled community, and comes to the conclusion that "stories are an integral part of Travellers' interactions with each other" (37). More comprehensively, he offers the suggestion that "in addition to the functions of entertainment, education, identity, and comprehension of experience [... ] Travellers use stories as a way of responding to the social, political, and historical issues that affect their lives" (46), quite a load to bear and responsibility to live up to, for the poor old story and its tellers, but nevertheless a statement with much validity. It should be said that in his "Introduction" and throughout the book copious relevant transcriptions from the author's field recordings are provided to illustrate a story told, a song sung, or a point made.
A further step toward his avowed goal...