An enduring memory of my childhood is that of lying in bed on a cold December night in Bangalore, sometime around 1973 with the lights switched off and my brother telling me stories of Brer Rabbit. These were written by Enid Blyton and involved the escapades of a rabbit who was constantly outwitting the trio of Brer Fox, Brer Wolf and Brer Bear. In my mind, these stories were set in the English countryside, Enid Blyton was after all a British author. These stories were my favorite and I would pester my brother to retell these stories each night. I would chortle with glee as Brer Rabbit would escape from a perilous situation and Brer Fox would end up with his tail stuck in a fence.
As I grew a little older, I had the pleasure of reading the books myself. These books were hardbound and the editions I read were published by Purnell. The illustrations were quaint, set in the countryside with picket fences and smoke curling out of chimneys. Brer Rabbit’s clothes varied, the constant being his bushy tail that protruded from his trousers. He was quite the canny operator, often getting the better of all his adversaries. His diet seemed to vary, he stole carrots from fields but he also bought sausages from the butcher! The best stories, of course, were those that ended up with Brer Rabbit pitting Brer Fox, Brer Wolf and Brer Bear against each other while he stood back and watched the fun. There were animals that I was not familiar with at that point of time – Weasels and Racoons. I quickly outgrew Brer Rabbit as I discovered Secret Seven, Famous Five, Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys.
Years later, around 2003 or so, I developed a routine with my daughter that involved bedtime stories. She had an insatiable appetite for these and I would have to rack my imagination to come up with stories to keep her happy. I naturally turned to Brer Rabbit for help and was not disappointed. She loved the stories. I had forgotten most of them, so I decided to buy a book from Amazon. Though I could not find books by Enid Blyton I found one by another author. When I received the book, I was surprised to find the stories were not quite what I expected. Brer Rabbit just seemed to be a bit rougher than I remembered. The stories were similar to the ones I had read but not quite the same.
I then researched on the web and found out that Brer Rabbit is part of the Uncle Remus series of tales – African-American folktales penned by Joel Chandler Harris in the late nineteenth century. He said he heard these stories from slaves and he adapted them to a plantation setting. Br’er Rabbit or Brother Rabbit is a trickster in these stories with the same trio of adversaries. The introduction of animals such as raccoons and birds such as buzzards reflects the American setting of these stories. The African Heritage is reflected by Mr. Lion who makes his appearance in some of the stories. No elephants or giraffes though!