Setting

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

There are two settings in There's A Hair in My Dirt! Each is detailed with many complex visual elements in the drawings, even though the drawings are done in a rough, amateurish style. The beginning and ending frames for the narrative take place in the worm family's underground home, which...

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There are two settings in There's A Hair in My Dirt! Each is detailed with many complex visual elements in the drawings, even though the drawings are done in a rough, amateurish style. The beginning and ending frames for the narrative take place in the worm family's underground home, which is "beneath the floor of a very old forest, nestled in among some nice, rich topsoil." When Father Worm begins telling a story to his son, he sets that story "in a forest not too far from here."

The forest setting bears a distinct resemblance to the coastal forests near Tacoma, Washington, where Larson grew up, and Seattle, where he lives now. The trees shown are mostly conifers and some hardwoods of a size and age not commonly seen outside the Pacific Northwest. The smaller plants-ferns, ivy, mushrooms, and meadow flowers—are consistent with those that can be found around Puget Sound.

With one exception, the birds, animals, and insects that Larson depicts in this forest setting are reasonable representations of species that can be found in this area, provided that one is willing to accept the notion of a gray squirrel smoking a cigarette and wearing a T-shirt. The one exception is a snake, distinctly patterned to look like a coral snake. There are no such snakes in Washington State.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Gary Larson often uses words that are not in the daily vocabulary of many of his readers. Some students will enjoy looking words up in the dictionary to understand exactly what Larson means. For others, context will shed enough light on what Larson is talking about, and they will skip cheerfully past unfamiliar words to continue enjoying the story.

This is an excellent book for reading aloud in the classroom. Students appreciate the contrast between the juvenile storytelling structure and the ironic commentary on the real motivations of plants and animals.

In this book, the text plainly spells out for the reader the difference between Harriet's perspective on each scene (as it appears on first glance) and the underlying motivations for what is going on. The illustrations also make this difference clear, but more subtly. Harriet never understands what is really going on around her as she walks through the woods near her home, not because she cannot read the words at the bottom of the page, but because she does not pay enough attention to understand what she is seeing. The ants are not carrying their own babies but have stolen them from another anthill. The tortoise that Harriet throws into a marsh has the wrong kind of feet for a swimming turtle. The dragonflies take out mosquitoes with all the grace of fighter jets.

While the text states the unifying theme that "Nature really is red in tooth and claw," as Edward O. Wilson notes in the Foreword, the superficially pretty scenes of meadow, marsh, and forest are clearly meant to be inspected carefully for the telltale signs of rivalry, competition, and general grossness. Larson is a master at depicting the disgusting qualities of slugs with a few simple lines and dots. Readers who do not have the vocabulary to read well can look carefully at the pictures and learn what Harriet does not. As Father Worm tells his offspring, loving nature is not the same thing as understanding it.

What sets There's A Hair in My Dirt! apart from other works by Gary Larson is that he sustains one story for the entire book. Most of his previous works are collections of his one-panel "Far Side" cartoons. Only in The Curse of Madame "C" did he attempt to tell a multi-page story.

Larson's trademark cartoon style is simple black-ink drawings that are often quite rough and unpolished. The colored covers for his cartoon collections, and his prehistoric panoramas in The PreHistory of The Far Side, clearly show that Larson can also create pictures that use perspective, depth of field, and a series of characters whose actions imply ongoing activities and interaction. In There's a Hair in My Dirt, he employs these sophisticated drawing techniques in his untutored way, and the results are as accessible and enjoyable for his readers as a note passed in class.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Larson seems to take particular delight in how his bear characters react to humans. Reversing the ordinary roles of "hunter" and "prey" is only to be expected. The bears start out with a field guide to humans, grin over a fisherman and several jars of tartar sauce, and wait patiently to see what will emerge from a car that has sunk into a pond. Although there are no references to the bears in the text, they are drawn as supporting characters in the story. By-their presence, the bears provide a context to show that this story is very clearly not told from a human viewpoint.

Other characters interact in ways that show Larson's awareness of how social interactions can affect individuals in their communities. The gray squirrels shown shaking down a timid little red squirrel for his acorns illustrate that we cannot judge characters (and by extension, people) on appearances alone, not until we see how they treat those who are weaker. The Amazon ants shown stealing eggs from other species make it clear that enslavement brings degradation of more than one kind. And if Lumberjack Bob had had an education, he might have harvested the forest responsibly, in a sustainable fashion, rather than end up under a fallen tree.

The details added to the drawings will require either background knowledge or research if the reader is to understand the depth and richness of the scenes. For example, the drawing of the spawning salmon shows them leaping upstream through a clear-cut area, which will reduce the survival rate of their offspring. The significance of this clear-cut may be lost on some readers, but not on all. The annual salmon run is a powerful, elemental image in the minds of people who live in the Pacific Northwest. The facts of this migration may be less well known to people who live elsewhere, but the salmon run is known to almost everyone in the area where Larson lives. Nearly every student has made at least one school trip to a stream of spawning salmon. When Larson shows the salmon swimming upstream through a clear-cut area, he is showing yet another human influence on the plants and animals living in that stream. The influence is unintentional, but that is no excuse.

There is a throwaway line at the end of this page: Father Worm lets slip to his son the fact that earthworms contain both male and female reproductive organs. This one line is reason enough to schedule the study of this book after a health class in which the differences between male and female reproductive organs have been discussed.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

Barrientos, Tanya. '"Far Side' Creator's Retirement Underscores Rift in Cartooning Community." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (October 10,1994): K2289. An article discussing reactions to Larson's sabbatical and retirement, which some cartoonists would never consider.

Barry, John. "A Tribute to Cartoonist Gary Larson, Who's Vanishing into 'The Far There's A Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story 425 Side.'" Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (December 7, 1994): K6576. A cheerful tribute to the cartoonist on the announcement of his retirement, with quotes from his friends and colleagues.

Kelly, James. "All Creatures Weird and Funny; Cartoonist Gary Larson Views Man and Beast from The Far Side." Time 128 (December 1,1986): 86. A brief article on Larson and how he became a popular cartoonist obsessed with biology.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (October 10,1994): K2306. A humorous obituary for "The Far Side" as Larson announces his retirement.

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