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Alice Kane

River without End, Stories without End

By Heather Kirk

Volume 19 Number 6
1991 November

"An awful lot of people think storytelling is something you do with babies." Come inside storytelling with Alice Kane, the retired librarian who continues to inspire a new generation of storytellers-- both oral and print.

How do you capture pure water? Purling, sliding, shining. How do you catch the wind? A melodious strum, an airy thrum, a whirl.

"I have no skills," says Alice Kane, one of Canada's most skillful storytellers. "I don't know how. You want the story. Just the story. You can kill things by formalizing them. The story will change every time you do it. Taking it home and working on it can kill it. Simplicity and spontaneity are the keys."

Beyond the blue door and up the stairs, in the few bare rooms overlooking College Street that constitute the premises of the Storytellers School of Toronto, a dozen devotees sit in a circle around a white-haired oracle with a soft but clear voice. This is Alice Kane, eighty-three, now charming, now harsh, now playful, now plainspoken. Like a river. Like the wind.

Alice Kane, retired children's librarian, co-founder of the Storytellers School, is the author of Songs and Sayings of an Ulster Childhood, edited by Edith Fowke. She is at present assembling a dozen of her favourite myths and stories for a second book. Her storytelling can be heard on three cassette tapes available through the Storytellers School.

Miss Kane is quietly elegant in her dark, classic flowing dress. She sits bolt upright for hours in the folding metal chair, hands folded still in her lap, feet flat on the floor. Yet she never looks stiff. And she responds with sensitivity, wit and profundity to the questions and comments of her students. Her voice has a subtle Irish lilt: she immigrated at thirteen to Canada with her family.

We dozen students--a writer, a researcher, a social worker, an engineer, a homemaker, teachers, professional storytellers--have all signed up for an intensive weekend course on storytelling. There are no audiovisual aids. There is no official text. The course consists mostly of telling stories. Miss Kane tells stories. We tell stories. There is also discussion. It is all formally informal. It is very good.

"When you go into a school to tell stories," says Miss Kane, "some teachers have a problem with the baldness of the situation, the lack of props. They wonder what is going to happen."

Wonderful things are going to happen.

Miss Kane describes how storytelling reached the only black boy in a white suburban school, a child who had seemed unreachable to his teachers. The discussion becomes animated.

"Storytelling challenges stereotypes," says one participant.

"It creates a world of possibilities. It brings something to life in a way that can be received. It creates new relationships," says another.

"There is no limitation on what you can do--for the teller and the listener," says another.

"Storytelling is a means of breaking limits. When the storyteller is in touch with the divine, the spirit, the possibilities are unlimited."

"If you have a good story and you're in love with it, you can reach at least 80 per cent of the audience," says still another participant. "Storytelling is really about love. But it's not syrupy."

Miss Kane describes seeing and hearing storyteller Helen Porter (founder of Toronto's National Storytelling Theatre) alone on a stage in a darkened auditorium: "She was a small person in a vast place. I was transported. It was magic."

Tales of other local storytellers are told--board members of the Storytellers School. There is Rita Cox, a "no nonsense" lady of great "presence," raised in the rich oral tradition of her native Trinidad, author of How Trouble Made Monkey Eat Pepper, librarian, teacher of the storytelling course for staff at the Toronto Public Libraries. She knows the importance of waiting for the right moment before beginning one's story.

There is teacher-librarian Carol McGirr. She tells W.O. Mitchell's "Jake and the Kid" stories, and is very good at staying out of the way of the story.

"When Carol leaves me one night, that's where I wake up the next morning," says Miss Kane. "You're there, and she's not there."

There is Dan Yashinsky, founder of Toronto's "1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling" and the Annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling, editor of The Art of Storytelling and Tales for an Unknown City. At one storytelling class, the usually kind Dan lost his temper with a woman whose rendering of a story was very theatrical.

"That was terrible!" exclaimed Dan.

Miss Kane explains, "Some storytellers are saying, 'Look at me!'"

Tales of storytellers in other countries are also told. There was Padraic Colum (Miss Kane highly recommends his King of Ireland's Son, which includes myths and "glorious characters"). When he was a sick old man at a storytelling festival in San Francisco, he was unwilling to tell stories in a square room with a microphone. Then as he began to tell the first story, the room faded away.

"Ballrooms are not the right atmosphere for storytelling," explains Miss Kane. "Storytellers can have strong prejudices," she goes on. "I myself do not like bright lights flashing in my eyes."

There was "the voice on the wind wiping out all the mess": the storyteller overheard by Miss Kane at the "big American storytelling conference" in Tennessee.

"Stories heard are stories remembered," says Miss Kane. "You remember the voice, things in the voice. The sound of the voice brings things."

At the same conference in Tennessee, in a fine rendering by a shy professor of Beowulf to children, the rule was confirmed for Miss Kane that in storytelling with the young, "the great never fails you."

Miss Kane has much to say about the effect of storytelling on children, who need sources of courage and codes of conduct.

"You must teach children to defend themselves," she says, "rather than their having to go to an outside authority. They must have a sense of their own value. Children need to be told who they are....

An awful lot of people think that storytelling is something you do with babies. What is missing to me is the older children's story hours. I miss them terribly."

(Miss Kane got her first job in 1930 at Boys and Girls House in Toronto. She was very shy about storytelling at first, but neighbourhood children, who didn't have a nickel for the movies, would come and listen for hours and hours. Eventually storytelling became her favourite activity. "All I had was the skill of memory and an endless supply of stories. I told a Russian story, and afterwards there was a deep and terrible silence.")

Miss Kane quotes Michele Landsberg's dictum about the importance of actually reading the tales you give to children, and not just selecting what's "good" for them. About the Grimm brothers' "Juniper Tree" she says, "The violence and unkindness are difficult for children to accept. They must be able to talk about these things with their parents." And on fairy-tales: "Look at what you have, and do the best you can with it. When you start telling a story, think about what you want, about what your purpose is."

Then she tells another story, and another. "Nothing ever ends with the end," she comments whimsically.

The topic is now family stories. Miss Kane passes photographs around. Photo albums, tea pots, old clothes, an old clock, can be the beginning of a family story.

"A particular object ends up having a story attached to it: for example, a dulcimer, a mouth organ, or lace crocheting. Songs and rhymes do this too. Those kinds of things live on."

Miss Kane tells a story about her own grandfather that makes "a person out of the man." Then she tells someone else's story about a rock on the road which turned out to be a loaf of bread when the family was starving. Then she tells still another story about someone who was "absolutely desperate" and found fifty dollars.

"Fifty dollars went a long way in those days," she comments. "And to this day, that family always says grace."

The stories flow on and on. This is what storytelling is about. The significance of seemingly random incidents is explained, the present is explained, sources of strength are revealed, information is passed on to descendants, gaps are filled, the past is re-created for those who are "bereft."

Links are made between the ordinary and extraordinary, between the everyday and the great day.

"You can do an awful lot with very little," says Miss Kane. "Things come from many people, unexpectedly. The things that you remember are the things that are important. Research often turns up things that are of no importance. It's what evokes emotion that is important: a fragment of song, a sudden perception of someone's aloneness, their feeling forsaken. The story doesn't have to be all that true. It has to be as you remember it. The tale is a lie; the teaching is truth.

"You start a story with what is right for you. You do it your way. It won't be a success if you do it my way. You have a right to privacy in telling stories, but often it is the thing you most want to hide that is the most endearing."

Oh river without end! Oh!

Storytelling Resources


The Art of Storytelling. (Practical suggestions, storytelling activities across Canada, story collections and reference books). Available from the Storytellers School of Toronto.

Barton, Bob. Tell Me Another. Pembroke Publishers Ltd., 1986.

Barton, Bob and David Booth. Stories in the Classroom. Pembroke Publishers Ltd., 1990.

Kane, Alice. Songs and Sayings of an Ulster Childhood, ed. Edith Fowke. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983. Available by sending $12.00 plus GST to Fowke, 5 Notley Place, Toronto, Ont. M4B 2M7.


Kane, Alice. Irish Wonder Tales, Vols. I and II. (Mythic tales of heroes and high kings of Ireland, with harp accompaniment by Eithne Heffernan). Audiocassette. Vol. I: The Golden Fly, The Birth of Usheen, Usheen Returns to Ireland. Vol. II: The Wondersmith and His Son.

Kane, Alice. Tales from an Irish Hearth. (Ten classic tales of ordinary folk and of fairies, witches, pookas and changelings). Audiocassette. All three tapes available from the Storytellers School of Toronto, 412-A College Street, Toronto, Ont. M5T 1T3. $12.50 each + GST.

Heather Kirk is a freelance writer living in Barrie, Ontario. She has been writing for twenty-five years, producing short stories, novellas, poems and novels. She has also written many newspaper articles and radio scripts, and translated a prize-winning book of Viennese fairy-tales into English. Heather's work has been published in a wide variety of magazines, including Contemporary Verse II, Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, Canadian Children's Literature and Canadian Author and Bookman. She has received a number of awards for her work.

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