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A Mother's Story
The Magic Storysinger
The Magic Storysinger

Reviews of
A Mother's Story
From the Finnish Epic Tale Kalevala
Retold and Illustrated by M.E.A. McNeil

Hardbound with slip cover - red cloth
46 accordion pleated pages
6 1/2" x 6 1/2"
ISBN 0-9761833-0-7
List Price $25.00


Reviewed by Richard Impola, Emeritus Professor of Literature, Colombia University. Richard Impola is widely regarded as the dean of translation of Finnish literature recognized with the Inger Sjooaberg Prize, the Art and Letters Award, and the Insignia of the Order of the Lion of Finland, First Class. This review appeared in the New World Finn.

As a follow-up to her retelling of the Vainamoinen tales from the Kalevala in The Magic Story Singer, M.E.A. McNeil has given us a collection of stories involving another of the heroes around whom Kalevala tales have accumulated: Lemminkainen, the ace Lover Boy who died, according to the myth, and was restored to life by his mother.  The book bears the simple title: A Mother's Story.

Descriptions of a books physical appearance are seldom part of a review, but this book is highly unusual in that respect.  It is only about six by six inches and slides neatly into a hard box.  The color of the cover and box is a deep red.  The pages are arranged in an accordion foldout fashion and extend to some twenty feet in length when spread out completely.  The effect is that of a frieze which tells a story in a series of pictures accompanied by a text.  The illustrations are striking block prints in black and white.

The stories are ideal for reading aloud to children or for being read by them.  Need I add, children of all ages? They are told in a simple style which moves the story forward.  As a narrator, Ms. McNeil summarizes the action of the original text, omitting its repetitions.  She sets the stage for events -- her version has the Lemminkainen tales opening with his mother coming into the sauna to bring him his courting shirt.  In acting as the story teller, she makes some shifts in emphasis. Her repetition of the phrase "too beautiful" suggests that Lemminkainen was cursed by a kind of fatal attractiveness rather than having a character flaw, which I think is the case with the original.

In the afterword to the book, Ms. McNeil provides scholarly information for those interested in the background of the Kalevala and the possible sources of some of the tales which appear in it.

That the Kalevala can inspire a work of this quality is a tribute to its worth. Congratulations to M.E.A. McNeil for another fine contribution to the cause.

Reviewed by Harri Siitonen in the February 22, 2006 issue of RAIVAAJA:  Finnish American Weekly.

Labor of Love and Caring
RAIVAAJA readers may remember M.E.A. McNeil’s delightful self-illustrated 1993 book The Magic Storysinger which tells the story of Vainamoinen, the great shaman and rune-singer of The Kalevala.  This lively work delighted readers of all ages as a colorful introduction to Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen and Louhi, among the great mythic figures of Finnish folklore. 

Ms. McNeil has now written, illustrated and published an even more unusual sequel, A Mother's Story, based on the Lemminkainen runes.  It’s unique in more ways than one, not only for its treatment of content, but for its physical appearance.  The book comes encased in a red linen-lined box measuring about six by six inches.  The books red cover opens to a long 24-foot book length accordion foldout instead of the usual flipping one page at a time format.  She has illustrated the book with black and white prints from woodcut blocks she has artistically carved herself.

This, of course, is the story of The Kalevala’s irresponsible handsome “lover boy” Lemminkainen, a Finnish antecedent to Don Juan, whose follies lead him to death and dismemberment at the River of Tuonela in pursuit of the Black Swan.  Naturally the story is not confined to the hero’s reckless, impulsive pursuits of love and promiscuity.  It retells the ancient myth of healing, mending and resurrection through love, in this case the ministrations of Lemminkainen’s long-suffering mother to bring her son back to life in one piece.

Ms. McNeil just as lovingly weaves the telling of the story as Lemminkainen’s mother did in resurrecting her son with her magic balm, chants and all-powerful love.  Her illustrations and writing are part of the same fabric, and a kind of magic of someone who integrally identifies with her subject.

In many ways, the book is much the story of Ms. McNeil herself as it is of Kalevala characters.  A writer, illustrator, puppeteer and teacher, her profound interest in Finnish culture and tradition can be traced to her Finnish-American mother, Ellen Milja Leivo McNeil, to whom she dedicates the book.

Storm Clouds
Following her successful publication of The Magic Storysinger, she soon began work on her Lemminkainen project.  But it took her ten years to complete it.  She had the boxed, accordion treatment in mind from the beginning.  But her idea was rebuffed by the publisher as “not commercially viable,” that there was no niche for an illustrated adult myth.  So she decided to publish it herself as a labor of love, and with the aid of a grant from the Finlandia Foundation.

But then personal disaster struck.  As she began to carve the blocks for the prints, Ms. McNeil’s hands didn’t want to cooperate.  She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  Soon it spread and she became bedridden, not being able to hold a book in her hands. Some years later she was able to join a clinical study at the University of California for a new biologic drug and was one of the lucky few for whom it worked and it’s been in remission ever since.

In her convalescence, there was plenty of time for thinking and evaluating stories and myths as living through their tellers, who she says “process the story through their (own) experience.”  Lemminkainen’s regeneration ran through a parallel path with her own. Karen Armstrong says in her new book A Short History of Myth that:  “All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and in that sense supports it.”

McNeil observes “that in Lemminkainen’s story, it is his mother who embodies loving care, but it is loving care that regenerates us all – whatever the source.  That kind of loving care became the focus for me, the source of healing, rather than the dissolution of Lemminkainen’s life.”  So the inspiration of the story really lies in the heroism of the mother, more than in the wanton son.

In current parlance, it’s sometimes said that the political becomes the personal; in this case it can be said that the “mythological becomes the personal,” where the author is concerned.  This is reflected in the warm, earnest tenor of the book.  Literally a labor of love and caring.

Ms. McNeil also includes an afterword of Kalevala history and the universal connections of its mythology, which will help stimulate those who discover the epic for the first time to pursue reading it in itself, in the original or in translation.

Reviewd by Robert Walter, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

A Mother's Story: A Mythic Work of Art

M.E.A. McNeil is the writer-illustrator of The Magic Storysinger: Tales from the Finnish Epic Kalevala, which won the Aesop Award from the American Folklore Society. A free-lance journalist who covers an eclectic range of subjects, McNeil lives with her husband and sons in San Anselmo, California, where she works in a studio in the loft of the straw bale barn on her family’s organic farm. McNeil has now completed A Mother's Story, Based on the Lemminkainen Runes from the Finnish Epic Kalevala. The book itself is a work of art – a twenty-four foot long block print illustrated book, folded into accordion pleats, cloth bound and boxed (in a format known as an orihon). It sounds bulky, but is surprisingly compact – about six-and-a-half inches square, no thicker than any average volume, and no more difficult to read than any other book. The physical design, however, transforms the reading experience and enhances the flow of the myth.

A Mother's Story is illustrated with striking black and white prints from woodcut blocks that the author and artist carved herself. The images are intricate and haunting, providing a visual context at once familiar, and foreign. The same holds true in the telling, which strips away much of the accumulated baggage accompanying recognizable motifs and presents them in a setting that enables each mythic image to work its magic. The effect is surreal and dreamlike, pulling the reader into the story – or the story into the reader.

The tale is that of a handsome yet flawed philanderer - the legendary Finnish youth, Lemminkainan - whose pursuits lead to death and dismemberment along the banks of the River of Death. It’s a tale of “the seducer, the murderer, and the murdered” - and of the healing power of love – a mother’s love, which makes possible the re-membering and resurrection of the wayward hero.

In her afterword, McNeil traces threads of this story all the way back to the myth of Isis and Osiris, as well as exploring the significance of a few specific images (e.g., bear, bee, honey, etc.).

A thoughtful gift for any older child or adult, A Mother's Story is a treasure worth cherishing.