Dorson, Richard. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Dorson, Richard. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 3rd edition, edited by James P. Leary. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008 [1952]. pp. 371, index.  Paper $24.95.

Jodine Perkins
Indiana University

Based on five months of fieldwork conducted in 1946, Richard Dorson brings together a collection of folklore from the diverse inhabitants of Michigan’s Upper Pennisula (U.P.): young and old, lumbermen and miner, Ojibwa, Finn, and French. He selected this place, in part, because it was relatively close to his home in Lansing, although still a ferry ride away. He also chose the U.P. because of its isolation from much of the U.S., its cultural distinctiveness, and because both American Indians and European immigrants of many nationalities lived there. Furthermore, the U.P. was still fairly rural and poor due to the decline of timber harvesting and mining. To Dorson, it seemed that all of these conditions made this area fertile ground for finding folklore, particularly oral narratives, and indeed he did discover a “storyteller’s paradise” (2).

Dorson includes a wide variety of genres in his collection, including folk belief, folk medicine, legends, humorous tales, fairy tales, and tall tales. Many of these genres are found over much of the United States and Europe. Others are local genres, such as the stories of sagamen, accomplished storytellers who tell heroic, often exaggerated, and romanticized tales about their own personal experiences.

Dorson divides the book into three sections, “The Indian Tradition,” “The European Tradition,” and “The Native Tradition,” the latter of which developed locally after European contact. Although some genres are associated with one particular ethnic or occupational group, Dorson is particularly interested in folklore changed by and generated through the interaction between the diverse ethnicities that composed the U.P.’s heterogeneous society. For example, he includes fairy tales told by Indian or mixed-blood narrators, which have Americanized characters and settings, but which can also be linked back to the structure and plots of European tale types.

The style in which Dorson writes is often breezy and sometimes seems a bit informal. However, this style enables him to give a quick sketch of the storyteller, and, as James P. Leary points out in his excellent introduction, usually these sketches demonstrate far more affection than caricature. In addition, Dorson’s style emulates the mood of the tales. Thus, his writing doesn’t overwhelm the tales or feel out of sync with them. This book is highly readable, in part because of his style, but also because most of the scholarly apparatus is tucked away in the endnotes. For the most part, Dorson is effective at describing his methodology. For example, he states that he often first listened to a story in a more natural, group session, noting the context of the session and the reaction of the audience. He then later asked the teller to slowly repeat it so he could record the story word for word in the pre-tape-recorder era. He also discusses different methods that he used to identify and contact narrators. As Leary points out, Dorson could have been more forthcoming about his partnerships with translators and how this influenced the final recorded texts.

Leary’s introduction provides valuable context to understand this collection as part of Dorson’s scholarly legacy as well as a representation of U.P. folklore in the mid-twentieth century. The book demonstrates the rich variety of folklore that one man was able to come into contact with during a relatively short time in one part of the United States. Although the field of folklore studies has changed in many ways since this collection was assembled, Bloodstoppers is still an engaging read and also provides a model of how recording and analysis of the folklore of one particular place and time can tell a larger story about history and culture. As Jim Leary states, amid a post-war Cold War climate that defined “Americanism . . . in narrow, Eastern-oriented, Anglo-Protestant assimilationist terms,” Dorson forcefully demonstrated that the Upper Midwest, full of working-class, indigenous, and immigrant peoples was just as American as anywhere else. Furthermore, Dorson convincingly argued that describing a place with such a rich cultural mix was the best way to represent America (2008:xx). Although folklore studies did not embrace his later efforts at developing a common theoretical framework (see Dorson 1959 and 1963) to the degree that Dorson may have wished, his argument that we can understand a complex place through a multiplicity of stories is still a guiding principle of folklore studies.

Works Cited

Dorson, Richard. 1959. “A Theory for American Folklore” Journal of American Folklore 72/285:197–215.

Dorson, Richard. 1963. “Current Folklore Theories.” Current Anthropology 4:93–112.

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