I grew up in Pennsylvania German country just outside the influence of the Amish. We visited my grandparents, a stoic, Dutch farming couple with heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accents, weekly on a Sunday, along with other cousins, just enough to get a taste of the quiet farming life. We were mesmerized, yet horrified by a short book called “Struwwelpeter” that was stuffed into the bookcase, next to dusty Farmer’s Almanacs, and antiquated encyclopedias. It was pronounced by my Grandmother as “Schtribblepater”, and I remember her saying to “Pay mind” to it, which meant to read and learn from it.
The book rattled off a dozen or so short, illustrated poems that were meant to scare children into obedience, and to stay on the path of good hygiene. Don’t play with matches lest you incinerate; don’t go outside during a storm or you’ll blow away…those were the moral lessons taught at the expense of children’s lives.
The one tale that I can remember to this day, was little Suck-a-Thumb.
Little SAT was told by his mother not to pop that delicious thumb of his into his mouth while she went out shopping, because there was a tailor in the neighborhood that was rumored to get a little scissor-happy at the sight of such a disobedient youngster. No sooner does she leave, than the thumb goes in. The next picture and prose feature the long-legged scissor-man, who bounds into the room rather mechanically, like a cuckoo clock bird the second the hour changes, with a large pair of hedge-clippers, and cuts little SAT’s thumbs off, blood and all, before making a hasty egress.
But what I think drew us back again and again to marvel at the horror, was the Mother’s response upon her return to a bleeding, thumb-less child. “Well”, she says,” I knew it would happen”. And the last frame shows little SAT, in a thumb-less pose of regret and useless penitence.
That story would haunt me come bedtime, not only for the sheer violence of it all, coupled by the parental indifference, but also for the fact that to a child of the ‘70s, weaned on H.R Puffinstuff and the McDonaldland characters, a trip to our television-less grandparents was culture shock enough.
The book, which I thought even then to be 100 years old, was thick with stylization and verbiage fitting the 1800’s, and when placed next to genuine authentic reference materials used by my farming grandparents to predict planting seasons and crop rotation in a rather other-worldly fashion, gave room for just a modicum of doubt in my young mind as to if such atrocities could have been commonplace back then.
The trauma was not so much for the story, but for my strict Pennsylvania Dutch heritage in general.
UNK SEZ: Bigwig, what an amazing book! I have gathered from the remarkable resemblance between myself and the tailor in the illustration that your own Unkle Lancifer has lived previous lives! It seems my earlier incarnation was a stickler for manners too! Mindful kiddies should take heed and learn from the mistakes of those who fell before them. Read and learn from Struwwelpeter HERE!