The Stone Age Rocks

Every year, for as long as I have been around, Swedish Television has had an Advent calendar program for children every evening in December, leading up to Christmas Eve. (In Sweden, Christmas Eve is The Day of celebration, and Christmas Day is just for eating leftovers and playing with your toys while mum and dad does crossword puzzles or watch a film.) It´s some kind of story, often connected with Christmas, and you can buy a calendar and open it with the television host or perhaps even the characters of the story. This year, the advent story is based on a Swedish children´s book classic, "Barna Hedenhös" (= the children From-Time-Immemorial, but it´s really not translatable and the books are not, as far as I can figure, translated to English) by Bertil Almquist.

The family lives on the Stock (= tree log) Holme.
"Barna Hedenhös" was an early favourite of mine and the trauma experience of having my father read it to me may have fueled me with some extra motivation to learn how to read for myself. What he did during his first reading was to improvise: "And pappa Ben says:" and then he would ad-lib something really funny that went with the pictures. The next time I begged him to read it he was, however, not able to repeat the performance, and I was so confused and provoked, because to me, letters were absolute, books were reliable (and I had a very good memory - I still to this day remember one of those made-up lines...), and they didn´t change from reading to reading. A book did not forget the joke it told yesterday!

Much of the humour is based on wild, unrestrained punning and unabashed anachronisms; Almquist was particularly fond of making up words with the prefix ur- which means ancient or primordial. Like in the book where the family Hedenhös goes to America, they arrive at a town called Urjork, or Ur York, which is, naturally, the original New York. The indians who live there are not iroquois, but uroquois. And they go on an excursion to Urtroit and visit with uncle Urford, riding on his horsepowered wagons. It´s all delightfully recognizable, and the well-travelled Hedenhös family also goes adventuring to Egypt, England, Paris (where they are kitted out by Mr Diur), and they even go to the moon, and to Mars! They also organize the worlds first international olympiad, the urlympiad.

Pappa Ben builds the raft Ur-tiki that takes them to America. (Remember Heyerdal´s Kon-Tiki expidition in 1947?)

Arriving at Ur York.
The illustrations are glorious, there are things happening all over the place, and there is such vitality to every character. 

Bertil Almquist was born in 1902, and the first book came out in 1948. The stories are very much of their time and have that hyper-positive attitude to technology and progress. It is what fuels them, really. The family is an ideal nuclear family: pappa Ben (= bone), mamma Knota (= another Swedish word for bone), brother Sten (= stone), and sister Flisa (= splinter). Pappa Ben may only possess a flint knife and a stone axe, but that does not stop him from building a jet plan (driven by uranium, in case you wondered). Their animals are part of the family, as well as being useful household assets, and they all come on the adventures.

In yesterdays paper, it was announced that the America-album will not be published in future. It is perhaps my favourite, but I can really see why they had to make this decision. The attitude to the indigenous people of North America is, well... shall we say naive and patronizing? A tad colonial? Remember, this was a time when Swedes had not yet learned that a person of dark skin-colour could take offence to being called a negro. To us, it was just a noun, and to some very old people (like the mum-in-law) it still is. We had yet to see "Roots" on television (I was not old, but I remember how BIG that was). If the world seemed small in the Hedenhös universe, to a regular Swede in the 50´s, it was actually pretty large and unknown.

Uncle Urford´s factory in Urtroit.
In some cases, older books can be salvaged from having become un-politically correct by changing a word here or there (as I understand has been done to Mark Twain´s children´s books, and Astrid Lindgren´s Pippi-books). But in this case, the whole plot is based on the "fact" that bulls (as everyone knows from the bullfights, right? it couldn´t be the BARBED arrows they stick in their backs, could it?) become enraged when you wave something red in front of them, and that indians have red skins. Pappa Ben solves this problem by introducing face paint to mask the redness and thus makes the indians and the bisons best friends forever... It´s a story promoting peace, but the premise is too way off. It´s unsalvageable. And I don´t think Almquist was a racist, more like the opposite. But for all the things he knew, there was so much he didn´t. If he were alive today, he´d probably cringe, as I did when I read it a few days ago.

Still, the characters are alive and well, and changing with the times. I think I´ll tune in at least for the first episode, to see what´s been done to them.

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