The Ballad of Belle Dorcas by William H. Hooks,
illustrated by Brian Pinkney

(Suggested reading level: Grades 2 – 4)

This is a wonderful re-telling of a traditional American story, but one I’ve never heard before. According to the author, this is one of the many “conjure” tales he was told when he was a child in the tidewater area of rural North Carolina. He remember listening with “awe and tantalizing shivers.”

Belle Dorcas is free issue, the daughter of a slave woman and her master who was granted her freedom at birth. She works in the master’s home, but her mom is dreaming of the day when Belle will marry a free issue man and live in her own home on her own land. Despite being courted by a number of eligible free men, Belle falls in love with a slave, Joshua, and gains permission to marry him. She gives up everything for love. When a new master plans to sell Joshua, Belle is desperate to find a way to keep him.

Frightened, Belle nevertheless visits Granny Lizard, a “conger” woman who asks her one question. “can you give up Joshua to keep him?” Belle doesn’t think twice before answering yes. We know that question has more meaning than Belle seems to worry about. Granny Lizard makes her a spell, a small bag that she is to rub on Joshua’s neck while they walk in the woods that night. When Belle follows the instructions, Joshua turns into a tree, but the conger woman explains to Belle that at night she can rub the bag on the tree and it would transform into Joshua the man, but he would have to become a tree during the day. Belle went every night and they were happy.

If that were the end, it wouldn’t be much of a story. The Joshua tree is cut down to build a smokehouse. Belle is devastated, and I have to admit that this part had me bawling.

“Joshua!” she screamed, and threw herself onto the fallen cedar. The slaves drew back in puzzlement at the wailing woman hugging the tree. Finally they pulled her away and dragged the tree out of the woods. Belle Dorcas followed, screaming, “You’ve killed my Joshua!”

Belle nearly goes crazy with grief, wandering through the wood, circling the smokehouse, talking to herself. After months and months, Belle hopelessly returns to Granny Lizard, who reminds her that Belle had to give Joshua up to keep him, and whispers in Belle’s ear.

She rubbed the cunger bag around the outside of the house. Then she stepped through the door. There stood Joshua with his fiddle in his hand, smiling and holding out his arms.

And from that time on Belle Dorcas and Joshua were together every night until they were very old. When Belle Dorcas died, the smokehouse disappeared. Where it stood, two young cedar trees were found growing side by side.

This tale had me in tears. It’s a children’s book, but I’m glad I wasn’t reading it aloud, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through. It’s about true love and magic, just a beautiful, touching story.

40 pages
First published 1990

4½ out of 5 stars

Purchase at Amazon.

This is Tif’s last week hosting this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there to see her take on “Tangled” and to share your own thoughts. Next week, I’m planning on carrying on with a feature focusing on fairy tales, folktales, tall tales.

Challenge: Fairy Tale