Tales for telling again and again
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 26, 1991
“There are no cats in America, and the street are paved with cheese”.
Thanks to the artistic genius of Steven Speilberg, the song containing these words filled the mousehole of the Mousekewitz family in Russia late in the 19th century. Though persecuted and with few freedoms, the family had hope, and they dreamed of a better life.
Papa Mousekewitz wanted to emigrate to America. So did his little ones — including Fievel and his brothers and sisters. Once Mrs. Mousekewitz agreed, they packed up and left.
The trip to America was long and ardous. When the Mousekewitz family arrived in New York, they found tough times. There were cats in America — mean cats who ate some of the emigres — and the streets were not paved with cheese. Not even close.
But the Mousekewitz family was free. They struggled and they made it. Spielberg’s An American Tail is a great morality tale — of dreams, vision, faith, perseverance and hard work.
Spielberg has graced this Thanksgiving holiday with An American Tail sequence:Fievel Goes West. After years in New York, Papa Mouskewitz decides there is too much poverty, pollution, filth and violence. So, he decides to move his family to the great American West –“to a better world where cats and mice work side by side.”
The family decides to go to Green River, a western town where, they are told by hucksters, everything works. When they arrive, of course, nothing works. Green River is a desert. Food is scarce. The town has to be built from scratch.
Worse, Green River is run by duplicitous cats, who intend, eventually, to eat the mice arriving from the East. But, in the end, the mice prevail. Through all the adversity, Papa Mousekewitz retains his faith in the idea than one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.
While Walt Disney brings life to our fantasies, Steven Spielberg connects us to our roots, to the dominant ideas of American culture: perseverance in the face of adversity; faith and hope in the context of imperfection; self-confidence and self-assertion in the face of opposition.
We need to be reminded of these truths, even if it’s through a G-rated movie. Too often our kids learn American history through bland, committee-written textbooks, heavily influenced by the norms of cultural relativism and secular humanism.
Consider, for example, one school book description of the pilgrims as “a disillusioned group of Europeans who came to America in search of a new life.” There is very little about the political and religious intolerance that drove the pilgrims from Europe and almost nothing about the tremendous contribution of the pilgrims to American democracy, one of the most successful and novel experiments in human history.
Or consider the political culture of American adults, where our leaders invite us to be victims — of (take your pick) racism, sexism, corporatism or some other demon. This stands in sharp contract to the can-do, self-help, let’s-fix-it-and-get-on-with-it spirit that has driven the growth and expansion of political and economic freedom in the U.S.
So, as we prepare for Thanksgiving 1991, it’s good to remember our immigrant roots and the culture of hope and freedom that has made America great. Each family and each community needs to recall and, most importantly, retell the morality tales that defined their experience and shaped who they are today. It’s only by passing these stories from generation to generation that we learn from our past and assure our future.