Whither Shall I Wander? Reflections on Mother Goose: Past, Present, and Once Upon a Time

Geese flying -- Mother Goose Tales

Whither shall I wander? This question can be a delightful start to considering the history of the inestimable Mother Goose, illustrious ancestor of the Mother Goose of The Mother Goose Letters (at Bay Press, 2019). As her correspondence in the book reveals, Mother Goose is also a character of longevity and considerable force. At one point in the book, feathers in full bristle, she says she might have been married to King Pepin the Short of the 8th century. More commonly, though, she is referenced as emerging in France some 350 years ago, in publications by Jean Loret (La Muse Historique, 1650) and Charles Perrault (Contes de ma mère l’Oye ou Histoire et Contes du Temps Passé, 1697). In The Mother Goose Letters, Mother Goose has evolved into a wise-cracking, opinionated, and perspicacious character (perspi-goose-ious, as she would have it). She has come round to accept, if not embrace, being called ‘historical’. Discovering your ancestry is all the rage at present, she might observe, but she prefers her own accounts. If we can lay any claim to fact as it concerns Mother Goose, her narrative DNA would take her back to ancient Greece, about two centuries before Aesop’s fable of a goose that laid a golden egg. ‘Whither has she wandered’ has become the question at hand.

Mother Goose, from The Mother Goose Letters © Karen Clavelle
From The Mother Goose Letters © Karen Clavelle

The question is not rhetorical: if we were to ask the Goose, she would play her air guitar and carol out in a nod to Hank Snow and Johnny Cash, ‘I’ve been everywhere.’ She has been ‘everywhere,’ as her reader demographic confirms, but her rhymes and tales do not reflect her peregrinations. The world of Mother Goose and her narratives have remained significantly fixed in British culture, stoically and remarkably oblivious to change – until now.

Travelling to and from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention other waterways the world over, Mother Goose is indisputably a migrant in imagination, if not in flesh and feather. The Mother Goose Letters cast her as an emigrant on several planes, starting with her Greek ancestry. However, she is no less the migrant to the 20th– and 21st-century Canadian prairie, where she endures environmental, physical, political, intellectual, and emotional vicissitudes to the present day. That she is comfortably and perhaps contentedly ‘stuck in’ and ‘stuck on’ the prairies, becomes clear from her first letter to the ‘laid up’ Humpty Dumpty. As he declines her offer of help during his convalescence and refers her to Will Winkie – whose public image needs amending – so begins a pattern of Mother Goose inviting her deft cohorts to visit and perhaps relocate (to refresh and renew their stories). That some of the characters take up the invitations is apparent in the revisioned tales and rhymes that address what it might mean to dream of finding ‘home’ in a new place for whatever reason.  

Mother Goose
The opening verse of “Old Mother Goose and the Golden Egg”, from an 1860s chapbook CC BY-SA 4.0

Aside from the fun of the relocation of Mother Goose to reflect regional culture, The Mother Goose Letters parody the larger ‘settlement’ or migration narratives of the British/Canadian past and the Edenic dream of the prairies as they were once (and perhaps continue to be) presented; what it means to discover place that is simultaneously ‘Eden’ and east of Eden; what it means to be ‘stuck,’ like Mother Goose, in a new place without cultural and physical knowledge of that place in the absence of friends and family for support, cultural or otherwise. In the altered lines of relocated, revisioned characters, Mother Goose intimates she has found Home, when, in the manner of stand-up comedians as well as satirists of the past, she draws attention to historic and present issues in Politics (and politics). She takes on the world of Higher Education and pokes fun at scholarly research from archival records to dissertations. She nods in the direction of the ‘Me-too movement’ in ‘Georgie Porgie’ and ‘Dr. Foster’ and takes on grasping senators. She reveals her feminism in the revision of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, for example, empowering both the girl and her grandmother in collusion against the wolf, and the kindly ogre and Jack against the giant. In retelling ‘Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, Mother Goose introduces the notion of the prairies as a vision of the sublime – for its never-ending plain, its bounty and abundance – and calls for a shift in our values from mercenary to moral. Through it all, the Old Girl takes the very notion of absurdity in the direction of meta-absurdity.

The Mother Goose Letters is primarily a book of humour set in a place so vast that understanding it calls on the absurd. For instance, think what it might be to experience a place that can only be compared to the sea, replete with wind and swelling waves.

There is a joke that presents the prairies as so absurdly flat that if your dog runs away you can see it for three days. In the prairies, Jack and Jill can’t find a hill.  In sub-zero temperatures, the muffin men can’t find an outdoor market, and cockle shells will never be seen in this landlocked place. The list goes on… The Mother Goose Letters exploits the absurd through relocation – where to wander, indeed?

Listen to one of the letters from Mother Goose here:


Your Royal Highness, The Queen of Hearts,

Through a letter expressing the kindest concern, I have learned that you suffer daily the humiliating affliction of the Knave and your – tarts (forgive me, it is hard to know what else to call them) – and I should like to offer a possible solution to your problem. My goose, Grisel, will be leaving soon to pick up Will Winkie, Tom (the piper’s son), Charlie Charlie, and the Nimble lad, along with Old Mother Hubbard and possibly her poor dog, although that depends on how Grisel feels about dogs on the day she’s leaving, and how much popcorn Mother Hubbard can afford.

Your Highness, forgive me for not asking sooner – would you like to come too? Mother Hubbard will be acting as my housekeeper when she arrives, so I am thinking perhaps you might like to take charge of the kitchen? I should warn you, though, it gets pretty hot in there as I am still using the galley kitchen the three men installed for me, and it really is quite tiny (as one might expect of a galley kitchen from men in a <tub> boat), but I have to wait until the Old Woman’s house is finished before I can get any work done on my own house.

It was lovely having the butcher and the baker here for a while, but they’ve gone west to meet up with the candlestick lad who can’t find a wick to stretch and hardly a butcher for tallow now that electricity is all the rage. Will Winkie has taken a post at Eaton’s, as Jack might do in the building or design department. I have a feeling the three men will be back with their hats off the minute they hear that Mistress Mary has arrived, though you better believe they won’t see her for the maids.

You will come, won’t you? And don’t forget the popcorn for Grisel. I hope you don’t think I’m being forward, Your Highness, but you might want to wear some good woollies. It can get quite chilly this time of year, and we are already long past any warm summer nights. Of course, it might be blistering hot, too, when you come. In any case, I would recommend wool over goose down any day. Anything ‘goose’ is a touchy subject around here.


I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble servant.

Wishing you a safe journey.




Win a copy of The Mother Goose Letters by Karen Clavelle

The brilliant At Bay Press have offered a copy of Karen Clavelle’s fabulous book for a lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscriber this month, with a copy also going to one of our Patrons*!


“The Mother Goose Letters comprises the annotated correspondence between Mother Goose and her cohorts in Britain concerning migration to the Canadian Prairies. The letters reveal both her attempts to wheedle her fellow nursery rhyme characters to settle in the Prairies with her and their mixed responses to her plans. Responding to a cease and desist command from No. 10 Downing St., M. Goose categorically makes her case for the out-migration and re-migration of her stories. She supposes they will continue to live if she gives them leave to change as time, place, and experience dictate. She is, after all, a runaway Mother Goose. In print for the first time, The Mother Goose Letters presents scrupulously collated research in the form of hitherto unseen letters and previously unknown revisions of the best-known Mother Goose nursery rhymes and fairy tales. These collected works are used as the framework whereby a story of modern day immigration can be told.”


Sign up for the #FolkloreThursday newsletter to enter (valid March 2019; UK & ROI only).

The book can be purchased here.

(*For an extra chance to receive copies of the latest books and folklore goodies, become a #FolkloreThursday Patron!)


Karen Clavelle is a Winnipeg poet, writer, playwright, and educator whose debut poetry collection, IOLAIRE (Turnstone), won the John Hirsch Most Promising Writer Award (2018). The book was nominated for the League of Canadian Poet’s Gerald Lampert Award for Most Promising Writer (2018), the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, and the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. In IOLAIRE , she weaves a heart-rending story around letters and news clippings from the sinking of HMY IOLAIRE. Her forthcoming book, The Mother Goose Letters (At Bay Press), takes a whimsical look at migration from the vantage point of a runaway Mother Goose corresponding with her most famous nursery rhyme characters. Karen’s work has been published in At Bay’s Fiction Annual (2018), Border Crossings, CVII, Prairie Fire, and academic journals. Karen holds a PhD (Eng.), a creative MA, Ed. Cert., and B. Music (Hist.). She has taught English Lit. and Prairie Lit. at the University of Manitoba, and Language Arts and Music in primary schools. She has received scholarships and grants from the Canada Council, SHRCC, and the Manitoba Arts Council. Karen has attended numerous writing workshops at (among others): Sage Hill, Victoria School of Writing, Prairie Theatre Exchange School, and the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture (UofM). Her play, “Crossword,” was a finalist in the “Sarasvati Bake Offs” (2015). She has given conference talks on the Long Poem, migration, and the Canadian North, and read her work in Canada, Scotland, and Spain, at the Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival, Thin Air (2018), at libraries and bookstores, at PTE, MAP, Sarasvati, and at CKUW and CJNU radio. Karen’s current work includes: BiRDSONG, poems (atelier78, Nov. 2018), collected poetry, a bound edition of four commissioned collectors’ edition poems, “The Seasons” (At Bay, forthcoming, 2019), hybrid literary travel-journals, a drama inspired by the first and only woman hanged in Manitoba, and a series of short fiction pieces. Long involved with chapbook publishing in Winnipeg, Karen is the founder of atelier78 press, and a founding member of the enigmatic and somnambulant pachyderm press. She is a board member of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and a former board member of the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg. She is an active member of a radio play troupe (Brian Richardson, director), and current Writer in Residence at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba.

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