Last week, I talked about the real Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman. Today, we’re looking at the legend he left behind. I read “Rainbow-walker” in American Tall Tales by Adrien Stoutenburg, although I’m sure there are many versions of the story available.
While the story does focus on Johnny’s love of apple trees and his mission to plant orchards west of Pittsburgh and help others do the same, his love of animals struck me most. He heals them and talks to them. They are his friends and companions during his trek through the wilderness. On days when he found no settlers or friendly Indians to spend the night with, he slept out in the open with a fox or raccoon curled up beside him to keep him warm.
One of the animals he healed, a large black wolf, became his friend, followed him constantly as they both grew older. I have to admit to bawling during the part of the story when the wolf was killed by a farmer and Johnny buries him and plants apple seeds around the area. I’m crying again just writing about it, which to be honest annoys me. I really do hate crying at books or stories, yet it happens way too often. Actually, I ended up in tears again at the end of the story. I guess the author’s simple writing just touched me.
Anyway, what’s a rainbow got to do with the story? The first rainbow appears on the day Johnny sets of on his travels, a sack of seeds on his shoulder and a little food in his pocket. The other appears only to him on the day he dies.
“Johnny sat up, rubbing his eyes. He looked at the sky again. Shimmering in the air, like a bridge of braided flowers, was a rainbow.
Johnny Appleseed leaped to his feet. He picked up all of his seek pouches and clung them over his shoulder. Then he called to the animals, “Brother Wolf, Sister Sparrow, Brother Bear…”
He started up the rainbow. the animals and the birds followed. Brother Wolf was the first, tagging at Johnny Appleseed’s heels. Two orioles rode on the wolf’s shoulder.
When they all reached the top of the rainbow, Johnny began throwing apple seeds all over the sky. If they stuck in the sky, they would grow into starts. If they fell to the earth, they would become trees. Johnny looked down at the land covered with orchards and knew his work was done. “(pg. 85)
While the true story of John Chapman is amazing in and of itself, I prefer the tall tale, but I guess that’s the point. Tall tales take real people and make them bigger than life, like Johnny Appleseed, or maybe not necessarily a real person, but a familiar backdrop and a person who may have existed. I don’t know that tall tales are really about teaching a lesson, though. To me they’re more entertainment- imaginative tales about larger-than-life heroes shaping a country that was still wild. They’re part of America, stories that I want to go back and make sure my daughter knows. She should know about characters like Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, my personal favorite.