Fairy Tales in Different Cultures: Sukey and the Mermaid

This week we will be looking at an American version of Cinderella. Sukey and the Mermaid by Robert San Souci is a different version of Cinderella taking place in South Carolina. In the author's note he comments that it is a brief fragment of Elsie Clew Parson's Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina published in 1923. He also states that it is one of the authenticated African-American folktales involving mermaids. He also searched for more complete narratives. In Caribbean folklore "Pretty Jo" or "Mama Jo" is derived from "Mama Dio" or water mother, a term for mermaid. Since he did not find the root tale in the Caribbean, he looked at African tales and believes this is a West African tale. Now again, this is a very different version of Cinderella and is not your typical story involving a prince, etc.

Flag of South Carolina
South Carolina is a southern state. It was the eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788. It was the first state to secede from the Union for the start of the Civil War and rejoined the Union in 1868. It is the 40th most extensive and the 24th most populous of the 50 states. The state capital is Columbia.

Map of the United States with South Carolina highlighted

King Charles II of England gave eight aristocrats a charter to settle Carolina, which means Charles Land in Latin. It was so named for King Charles' father. Carolina did not develop as planned and split into two colonies due to political reasons.

Some interesting more recent history of South Carolina is it was one of several states to reject the 19th Amendment (the right for women to vote). It later ratified it in 1969. South Carolina is one of three states that refuses to use competitive international math and language standards. South Carolina has the highest rate of strokes in the United States. South Carolina is the only state to own and operate its own fleet of school buses. (Source)

Now onto our book. This story is about a young girl named Sukey. She lives in a run down cabin with her mother and stepfather, Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones does not work and forces her to work. He yells at her to work more and not to take breaks. Sukey spends her days hoeing the vegetable garden. One day when Mr. Jones is not looking, Sukey sneaks off and runs to the coast where there is a white sand beach. It is her secret spot. She sings a song she heard somewhere which calls for Mama Jo. Mama Jo, a mermaid appears. Sukey has heard tales of mermaids being mean and trying to pull you into the water with them, so she is very weary of Mama Jo. Mama Jo is patient with her and they spend the day together. At the end of the day Mama Jo gives Sukey a gold coin to take home so her parents will not be angry with her. When her stepfather sees the gold coin he sends her back to the water every day to look for more. 

Sukey loves spending time with Mama Jo and every day Mama Jo gives her one gold coin. She invites Sukey to come live with her, but Sukey refuses. One day Sukey's mother follows Sukey and witnesses Mama Jo giving her the coin. That night Sukey's mother tells Mr. Jones. Early the next morning they go out and try to catch Mama Jo. After that Mama Jo will not appear for Sukey. Mr. Jones forces her to hoe the garden again until Sukey becomes very sick. While sick in bed, she dreams of Mama Jo and Mama Jo says she will appear to Sukey once more if she wants to come live with her. Sukey drags herself to the water and sings the new song Mama Jo told her in her dream. Then Mama Jo uses her magic hair to take Sukey to her underground cave. They live there happily together for a long time until Sukey begins to miss the sun and birds singing. She begs Mama Jo to take her back to the land. They finally agree to take her back and Mama Jo gives her a bag filled with gold coins and jewels for her dowry. She also tells her to only marry a man named Dembo. If she marries any other man the treasure will disappear. 

Sukey returns home. Her mother has been grieving her loss and Mr. Jones has grown even meaner until he sees the dowry bag. Young men come courting when they hear about the treasure. Sukey refuses them all until Dembo comes. They fall in love and her mother and neighbors plan a grand wedding for them. While Sukey and her mother are out the night before the wedding, Mr. Jones kills Dembo and steals the dowry, hiding it under his mattress. Sukey is devastated when she sees Dembo dead. She runs to the water's edge and calls for Mama Jo. Mama Jo tells her this is the last time she will come to her, but gives her something to bring Dembo back to life. When Dembo comes back to life he tells everyone that Mr. Jones is the one who hurt him. Mr. Jones grabs the treasure and hops into his canoe. The crowd watches as a storm cloud appears over him and the ocean swallows him--canoe and all. Dembo and Sukey are sad to have lost the treasure but are glad to still have each other. They get married and afterwards go to Sukey's favorite spot and she digs her feet deep into the white sand and feels something. They dig up the dowry treasure bag. She sees green and gold in the distance sparkling in the sun and Sukey blows a kiss to Mama Jo.