Babe the Blue Ox!
Paul Bunyan, the mighty lumberjack!
Made up by an advertising guy??
We’ve all heard the legend of enormously tall Paul Bunyan who conquered the northern woods and his gigantic companion Babe the Blue Ox, but… they were just part of an advertising campaign, not true folk-heroes!
America’s huge appetite for timber removed complete forests as settlers moved westward, overrunning the traditional lands of Native Americans while destroying cultures and ecosystems.
In 1914, the advertising department of Red River Lumber Company began promoting the “legend of Paul Bunyan” to gloss over their clear-cutting of old-growth woodlands, as they abandoned Minnesota and headed for the untouched forests of the West Coast.
Lumberjacks had always exaggerated stories of strong men at work like Saginaw Joe and Paul Bon Jean, but this newly-invented Paul Bunyan fellow beat them all!
From how his floating cradle created the huge tides in the Bay of Fundy to making the Finger Lakes when his hand hit the ground in New York to felling a tree with one axe stroke, Paul’s story was bigger and better than any other.
And heroic Paul worked for…Red River Lumber Company, at least in their pamphlets. He and Babe could clear and haul away 100 acres of big trees in one day and created the Mississippi River when their water wagon sprang a leak! No one in Minnesota believed those tall tales because they knew what the greedy lumber companies had actually done.
But the stories were in newspapers, then kids’ books and finally animation, obscuring the truth about why the mighty forests were reduced to small patches of woodland and how indigenous peoples were taken away from those valuable forestlands to reservations.
This fascinating graphic novel includes introduction and postscript by Native American scholars, as well as the Tree-Dwelling Little People story and a richly illustrated map of the Dakota homelands where Bunyan’s adventures were set.
Which American legend would you like to know more about?
Book info: Paul Bunyan: the Invention of an American Legend / by Noah Van Sciver, with Marlena Myles, Lee Francis IV, Deondre Smiles. Toon Graphics, 2023. [author site] [publisher site] Review copy and cover image courtesy of the publisher.