Saturday, June 30, 2012

Beauty and the Beast Wrap Up

Beauty and the Beast Wrap Up

This month, we’ve looked at five different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast:

Belle by Cameron Dokey
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Spirited by Nancy Holder
Beastly by Alex Flinn

Of those five novels, most hit most of the checkpoints pretty solidly – Beauty and the Beast, it seems, is hard to do poorly. Now, because the novels we looked at this month approach the story in such drastically different ways, this wrap up will be less of a comparison and ranking between the five and more a look at the similarities they share and what their individual strengths were.

It’s interesting to me that of the five novels, almost all of them (Spirited being the exception) are told in first person rather than third. This is an interesting choice because first person is the most limited perspective in a lot of ways. An author is confined to one person’s head and one person’s viewpoint. But that decision makes sense for this fairy tale. At its heart, Beauty and the Beast is really a pretty simple story, especially when we look at the number of characters. For the bulk of it, there’s only the two: Beauty, and the Beast. So it makes sense to put this story in first person – either through Beauty’s eyes to learn how she could come to love such a monster, or the beast’s to show his journey to self-awareness. And I think the fact that the one novel in third person is also the novel that brings in the most outside characters, speaks to this.
It’s also interesting to note that of the five, two chose to focus on Beauty, two chose to focus on the Beast, and the remaining novel focused on both about equally. I think that goes to show how multi-faceted a story this is – authors want to get inside everyone’s heads! As I said, this is a story with a lot of potential for improvement, and it was wonderful to read five novels this month that I enjoyed, as opposed to last month. Each of these books had a lot to offer the story, and they were all strong in different ways.

I love Belle’s relationship between Bella and the Beast, and the overall message that nothing is as it first appears and anything can change given time and the right circumstances. I love Beast’s willingness to divert from a lot of the iconic imagery of the original story, making Belle’s arrival and breaking of the curse almost an afterthought. I love Beauty’s timeless feel, the way it reads like an original fairy tale expanded. I adore the message of Spirited and the way the story was translated to real life history. And I love the modernization of Beastly, translating the story into our current society.

So where does each novel rank specifically?

Tied for first at Strongly Recommended are Spirited and Beastly. I just love the way that both of these novels took the original story and made it directly relevant to readers. I love the recontextualization, and I feel these two are the strongest of the bunch.

Belle, Beast, and Beauty follow pretty close behind, and are all recommended, but they each have some weak spots that keep them from being on par with the other two. I still really enjoyed them, though, and I do recommend reading them.

Other notable novels:

The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey remains one of my favorite adaptations of this fairy tale. You may ask why I didn’t, then, add it to the list this month, and I’ll admit, once I had the one-word title thing doing, I was kinda hesitant to break it. Also, only so many weeks. But this is a great book if you like historical fiction with a fantasy twist (terribly specific genre, that).

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley is an interesting read as well, mainly because, yes, that’s the same author who wrote Beauty. Twenty years later, she decided to give it another go, not because she wasn’t happy with the first one, but because she thought she could do it a little bit better and make the story a bit more complex. Die hard romantics will likely hate the ending, but personally, I love it, and I applaud McKinley’s guts.

And that’s all for Beauty and the Beast. Join me in July for a look at Rumpelstiltskin!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Kyle Kingsbury used to be the most handsome, most popular, most sought-after guy in his high school – until he public humiliated one of the so-called “ugly” crowd. Unfortunately for him, she was no teenager, but a modern-day witch, and as punishment for his beastly behavior, she’s turned him into a true beast. Shipped away to a penthouse by his famous father, he has two years to find a girl to love him or he’ll stay that way forever.

Type of Adaptation: Modernization with a perspective shift

So Alex Flinn is a relatively new name to the fairy tale adaptation genre, and what I like about her books is that she writes modernizations almost exclusively, and with a story like Beauty and the Beast with iconic adaptations like Beauty to its name, it’s nice to see the new context that a modernization forces. Because when you’re setting a story in the real world, there are some questions you have to answer: how does magic work? Are there really witches walking among us? How do you hide a beast in New York City?

We start by meeting Kyle Kingsbury, our spoiled prince character, and the translation of this character is handled very well. First of all, his name. “Kyle” means “handsome one,” and “Kingsbury” is obviously evoking the royalty that doesn’t exist in modern day New York. But secondly, we see that this kid is, in fact, as royal as our society gets. He has everything he could ever want – he’s handsome and popular, he has a rich and famous father, he goes to an elite private school, he has a beautiful girlfriend. In short, girls want to be with him; guys want to be him. He is the envy of everyone, and the philosophy he has grown up with is that in order to get what you want, you have to be beautiful.

When modernizing this story, you have to be aware of how the curse plays out, because in today’s society, if everyone who was selfish and egotistical was cursed to be a beast, we’d have precious few humans walking around. And here, Flinn handles the story very well.

Kyle becomes aware of a girl at his school who doesn’t fit in. She’s overweight, dresses all in black and out-of-date clothes, and wears goth-like make-up. When the class is asked to vote for the Homecoming Prince and Princess, she refuses and takes a stand against what she calls a glorified beauty pageant. Kyle stands up for the beautiful people, and just like that, he has caught the attention of this girl, Kendra. She calls him “beastly,” and the word really gets to him. So, he hatches a plan to get back at her.

He singles her out in gym class, and, under the guise of making an apology, asks her to the dance. He tells her that it’s to show that he does care about more than just appearances. She smiles, perhaps a bit too gleeful that he’s asked, and agrees to go. Then she goes and spreads around the school that Kyle Kingsbury asked her to the dance.

When Kyle’s girlfriend Sloane finds out, she’s not pleased, but that’s when Kyle reveals his plan – he wants Kendra to tell everyone that he’s taking her to the dance, so that when he actually shows up with Sloane, he’ll be able to humiliate Kendra in front of the entire school, so that she’ll learn her place.

So, yeah. A bit more than your ordinary selfishness going on here. Kendra, because she’s a witch and is specifically testing Kyle, knows that this is Kyle’s plan, but she’s giving him a chance to redeem himself. She gives him several, actually, and he fails them all. And so, when he humiliates her at the dance, she isn’t upset at all, but tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s about to get what’s coming to him.

And when he gets home that night, he finds her waiting for him, and she explains – he needs to be taught a lesson, and so she’s going to curse him, that his outside might be as ugly as his inside. It’s not just that he was selfish and rude, she makes clear. It’s that he was cruel, deliberately. He wanted to hurt another person, and for that, he must pay.

And originally, there was going to be no way out. Once a beast, a beast forever, that was the original intent. But he did himself one favor. His girlfriend wanted an orchid for a corsage, but Kyle’s maid bought a white rose instead. Sloane threw it away in a fit, and Kyle gave it to the girl taking tickets at the dance, because she said how lovely it was and how she would have accepted such a gift if it had been given to her.

And because of that small act of kindness, Kendra is prepared to give him a way out. She’ll give him two years to change, two years to find someone who can see past his beastly exterior and love who he is inside. If a girl admits her love for him within two years, he’ll change back. If not, he’ll be a beast forever.

And so he is transformed. Covered with fur that grows back the minute it’s cut, complete with fangs and claws, Kyle’s father is horrified, mostly by what this will do for his own image if it’s discovered. Kyle is pulled from school, and they travel to every doctor in the country looking for a cure, but they’re told the same thing – no cure exists.

And so, Kyle’s father buys a penthouse in Brooklyn. He ships Kyle off to it, with a maid and a blind tutor. Kyle isn’t stupid, and he recognizes this for what it is – he’s being disposed of, because his father cares more about his image and career than he does his own son. But he gives Kyle his credit card, and Kyle is allowed to purchase whatever he wants to make himself more comfortable.

What I love about this set up is the way that it works the classic magic into modern day New York – the house isn’t enchanted; Kyle’s just got a limitless credit card. Tasks aren’t done by magic, but by a pair of servants who are being blackmailed and bribed into staying.

The blind tutor, Will, is one of my favorite characters in the whole novel. He puts up with exactly no nonsense from Kyle, and after allowing Kyle the chance to sulk for a few weeks without putting in any effort to study, Will lays down the law – either Kyle lets him do his job, or he’s leaving. And since Will is one of the few people who doesn’t treat Kyle as if he’s a monster, Kyle agrees.

Over the course of the next year in the novel, Kyle is forced to take a good, hard look at himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He watches the world around him and the people in it, and he comes to some pretty unsettling conclusions. Using a magic mirror given to him by Kendra, he spies on Sloane and his old friends and hears the things they say about him now that he’s gone. He watches the almost invisible girl from the ticket booth who he always ignored because she was plain and on scholarship, and he sees that she lives in the slums with a dad who’s a junkie, and she stays up all night studying to keep up the grades necessary to keep going to the private school he took for granted.

He starts insisting that he be called Adrian during this year as well. He can’t be Kyle any long, can’t be “handsome.” So instead, he chooses a name that means “dark,” and the new name suits him well, and with it, he takes on a new personality.

His only refuge is the rose garden Will plants to bring some beauty into the place. At first he resists the idea, but he warms to it, to the idea of helping to give life to these plants that have come to mean a lot to him. He can’t stand to watch them die, though, so he learns to build and maintain a greenhouse. He learns a lot of strange things with Will in his new home, and what I like about the novel is the way that it really makes it clear how much work it is to learn these things. It would be easy to disbelieve a high school kid just up and building a greenhouse one day, but Flinn makes it believable.

A few times, Adrian tries to go out to the hustle and bustle of the city. During the summer, he can manage it – dressed in a long coat and scarf, he looks like a homeless person, and the city dwellers ignore him. But the colder it is, the less invisible he becomes, and the more risks he takes. The last time he tries is on Halloween. He goes out to a school dance, hoping that he can pass off his beastliness as a costume and find a girl who will maybe fall in love with him, but the night ends in disaster, and he basically gives up. He resigns himself to the idea that this is his life now, and there’s no escape. He has his roses. He has his dad’s credit card. He has Will and Magda, and maybe that can be enough.

Kendra shows up and calls him on it, and that’s another thing I like – Kendra is present throughout the story. She doesn’t just cast her spell and leave; she sticks around to see how it’s playing out. And she makes it clear that she doesn’t have the power to remove the curse. Once cast, it’s out of her hands. She’s bound by rules of magic just as he is. And here, she shows up to ask why he’s giving up. He says he’s not, he’s just living for his roses now, not himself. Then he asks if she’ll do something for Will and Magda. Give Will his sight, give Magda the chance to be with her family. Kendra can’t, because of the rules, but she tells Adrian that if he breaks his curse, she’ll reward them as well. It’s her way of getting him to keep fighting.

And then, the break in. A junkie tries to rob Adrian’s penthouse, and Adrian stops him. The man is terrified because, hey, beast, and starts begging his way out of the situation. He says there must be something he can give Adrian, but Adrian says there’s nothing the junkie has that he wants. That’s when the man asks if he wants a girlfriend, because he has a daughter, and Adrian can have her, if he wants. Utterly disgusted by this man, Adrian agrees – because no girl should have to live with a father like that, and Adrian wants to believe he’s saving her.

Which is all well and good, and noble in a way, but what Adrian doesn’t remember is that we can’t always help who we love, and even when our parents are utter scumbags, we feel a loyalty to them. This is certainly true for Linda, the junkie’s daughter, who does not take kindly to her imprisonment, though she’s willing to go through with it to keep her father out of jail.

Not until she shows up does Adrian realize that Linda is the girl from the school dance, the one he gave the rose to. And he wants so badly to get this right, because this is his last chance, but he keeps making missteps. Luckily, he has Will there to clue him in to when he’s being a self-righteous, overly proud and entitled asshole, and slowly, he learns.

And then we watch the Beauty and the Beast story play out. Oh, there are key differences, sure – instead of bonding over books and dinners, they bond over midnight popcorn and The Princess Bride. But they study together with Will and they tend the garden, and they explore the penthouse, and they become friends. And Adrian falls in love. It almost breaks his heart to hear Lindy talk about this guy at school she once had a crush on – Kyle Kingsbury – who didn’t know she existed. And how she hated that she liked him because he was handsome, because she wanted to be above all that, but he gave her a rose once, and she’s kept it since then. Adrian changes because of Lindy, growing to see her not just as a potential break to his curse if he can convince her to love him, but as someone worth his time and energy and love, someone he wants to love him only because he loves her and wants to be with her. He’d want her to love him even if it didn’t break his curse, and that’s one of the real turning points for him.

The ways he shows this love are absolutely wonderful – because she’s never left the city and never seen snow, he arranges for his dad to rent a ski-house for the winter, and takes her there. He teaches her to build a snowman, and he obviously leaves the door unlocked each night so that she can run away, leave, if she wants to. She isn’t his prisoner anymore, and he makes that clear, but he never says “I love you.” He can’t bring himself to. Because it would break his heart if she didn’t say it back. He wants her to be happy, and he asks how he can make her happy. And she responds by asking to see her father.

Her father, who essentially sold her into slavery to save his own skin, but who she still loves despite everything. And Adrian agrees. And when the magic mirror reveals that he is ill, Adrian insists that she go to him. That he can’t keep her anymore. He can’t be that selfish.

So she goes. And Adrian knows that’s the end. Will and Magda try to convince him otherwise, but he knows. She won’t come back. She won’t try to visit the penthouse. She’s gone, he let her go, he’ll be a beast forever, end of story.

And then Kendra shows up, for one of my favorite conversations of the whole book. Because she can see that he’s changed. She can see that he has learned his lesson. And if it was up to her, she’d change him back. But those weren’t the parameters of the curse. Is that fair? No, but that’s life. They have a great exchange. He says, “But I’m not the old Kyle Kingsbury. I’m not Kyle Kingsbury at all.” And she says, “I know. And that’s why I’m sad that you’re saddled with Kyle Kingsbury’s curse.”

And then, two years to the day, Lindy is in trouble. Her dad has sold her off again, but this time promising her virtue to the landlord in exchange for rent. In desperation, she cries out for Adrian, and through the mirror, he hears her. Abandoning his fear of being seen and despised, thinking not of himself but of helping another person, he leaves his home and runs to find her. He causes quite a disturbance, but he makes it to her in time. He even takes a bullet for her, and the fact that it wounds him is how he knows that the curse is failing.

But because this is Beauty and the Beast, in the nick of time, she admits her love and kisses him, and the curse is broken. And she’s really freaked out that she’s sitting there with Kyle Kingsbury, and she keeps saying she has to find Adrian. He convinces her that it’s him, Will and Magda are helped with the breaking of the curse, and voila, happily ever after.

Overall, there were only a handful of things I didn’t like about this adaptation. One, between each part of the book was a chat-room conversation between real-life folk who had been transformed through magic. Kyle was there talking, as was the frog prince and the little mermaid and the bear from Snow White and Rose Red. And I mean, it was kinda of cool to see some more obscure fairy tale characters, but it was really just a framing device for Kyle telling his story, and it wasn’t necessary. It got redundant, and it pulled us away from the story rather than enhancing it.

Second, there was this weird thing at the end where it turned out that Kendra was Magda, and she’d picked Kyle to try and change because of . . . reasons, and it was complicated and I didn’t quite follow it, and again, it didn’t seem necessary. It was one layer of connection too many for me.

But overall, I thought Flinn translated the story very well into modern times with modern sensibilities. How well? Well, let’s to the checklist.

Stronger Beauty character? Yes. Lindy’s not in a lot of the novel, but she’s very well developed when she is. We sympathize with her, we understand her, and yet, she’s very human and flawed, too. She loves her father despite everything he puts her through, but she’s not a saint. She still judges the Beast, and it takes time for her to grow past that, to learn to trust him. So check.

Stronger backstory for the Beast? Well, it isn’t backstory here; it’s the story, and as I said earlier, I love the translation this made to a modern character. It’s not just about selfishness, it was about cruelty. The reason for the curse got stepped up a notch, which it needed, and Kyle’s growth was very believably done and very rewarding for the reader.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? Like many other adaptations this month, she didn’t have to return. It wasn’t a condition. Now, Kyle did ask if she would, if she would visit him, and the reason why she didn’t there was great – she didn’t know how to get back to the penthouse. She didn’t have an address, her father wouldn’t tell her, and she’d only gone there once before by a very roundabout way. I buy it, so yes, check.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast? My favorite part about this relationship is that they knew each other before the curse. Lindy knew Kyle when he was beastly in both respects, and she’s the one he first showed that redeeming bit of kindness. It really wrapped her into the story early on, giving the whole thing a lot more connectivity. And once she got to his home, again, very well done. Full marks.

Stronger message? Not just a stronger one – one a bit more applicable to our time. It’s got the whole “inward beauty is more important than outward” message, but with a twist of, “No, the world doesn’t follow that aphorism, so you’re going to have to continually fight to believe it,” which is wonderful.

This is a masterful adaptation. One or two flaws in the narrative, to be sure, but the story is contextualized really well, and despite the magic added to New York City, it’s entirely believable.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Spirited by Nancy Holder

Spirited by Nancy Holder

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary:In May of 1756, war is formally declared between the British and the French. During this highly dangerous time, Isabella Stevens is traveling with her father to the British stronghold Fort William Henry. In the forest, Wusamequin, the young and handsome medicine man, looks to avenge the death of his wife and child at the ends of British soldiers. When Wosamequin spots Isabella and her father, he alerts his warriors to capture them. But Wusamequin is quite taken with how bravely Isabella battles. he orders the warriors to spare her and her father, and they are dragged back to their village. However, many members of the Mohican tribe still want them to be killed. In a desperate plea to Wusamequin, Isabella vows to stay as his hostage if he lets her father go.

Type of Adaptation: Historical Recontextualization

Though this list doesn’t actually exist anywhere, Spirited probably makes my top five favorite fairy tale adaptation novels. It definitely makes the top ten. This book was my initial introduction into the Once Upon a Time series published by Simon Pulse, and it remains, in my opinion, one of the best the series has to offer. Why? Well, let’s to the review, shall we?

Spirited takes the Beauty and the Beast story and places it during the French and Indian War (so, late 1750s) in the mostly unsettled wilderness of North America. Beauty? A young Englishwoman, Isabella, who came to the Colonies to live with her father a year ago. The Beast? A Native America shaman, Wusamequin, full of hatred for the “Yangees” and looking to slaughter as many of them as possible.

Quick interjection. Yes, a Native American is portrayed as the “Beast” here. No, it doesn’t bother me. Three reason:

1. That viewpoint and opinion from the perspective of the English is historically accurate.

2. The viewpoint of the novel is not limited to the English; it switches between Isabella and Wusamequin, with both cultures in turn being portrayed as “savage.”

3. The overall message of the novel negates any politically-charged reading one might wish to associate here.

Interjection done. On to the story.

We open with Isabella riding through the wild forests of the New World with her father and a military escort. They are heading for a nearby fort; her father is a doctor, and he is bringing medicine to the English soldiers there. As they ride, the narrative is full of Isabella’s wonder at this strange world around her, and already, she is being set apart through this. For the soldiers and her father see the dangers lurking in the trees, while Isabella sees the beauty and the majesty. Already, she is seeing the world differently.
Then we change perspectives – to Wusamequin, medicine man of the People of the River, and immediately, his “curse” is clear. No evil sorceress in this tale – the curse that Wusamequin carries is the grief and hatred over the death of his wife and son at the hands of the Yangees thirteen months before. We see him praying to his spirit guide and his ancestors to send him Yangee soldiers to kill to avenge the murder of his family. We see his rage and boiling hatred for all the white people. We see him thirst for vengeance.

And then we see that vengeance achieved. For Isabella’s patrol is attacked by Wusamequin’s tribe. Wusamequin’s animal guide, the great bear, attacks first, and while the soldiers are bringing the bear down, the warriors attack. They kill every soldier who stays to fight and chase down those who run.

And here we get to see that Isabella is no weak-willed heroine. The moment the fighting begins, she gets her hand on a knife, cuts off her corset to be better able to fight, and desperately tries to defend herself against a warrior who singles her out. She fights like a wildcat. She loses, of course, for the warrior is stronger than she is, but she gets a stab in with the knife, and the spirit of her fighting catches Wusamequin’s attention, and he stops the warrior from ravishing her, though it makes him an enemy to do so.

Because they are not soldiers, Isabella and her father are not killed, but they are taken captive back to the tribe for the sachem, the tribe leader, to decide what is to be done with them. Upon learning that Wusamequin knows some English, Isabella tries desperately to appeal to him, but though he saved her, she is still Yangee, and so hatred toward her still lives in his heart.

And yet, the fact that he saved her at all eats at him. He cannot understand it, because is seems so counterintuitive to him. She is Yangee. He shouldn’t care at all what happens to her. Yet he kept Sasious from harming her. Wusamequin struggles to understand why, and the reason he comes up with is that her spirit, her courage, captured his admiration, for she did not fight as a weak Yangee woman. Rather, she fought like the women of the People.

The tribe decides that they will ransom the captives to the French, with whom they are tentatively allied. But as Isabella and her father sit tied in a tent, waiting, their guard falls asleep, and the bark on one of the walls is rotting. This is their chance to escape, and they take it. Isabella’s father wants to kill the brave who was supposed to be watching them, but Isabella stops him. They tear away part of the back wall and make for the woods.

Unfortunately, they are spotted, and as they try to get away, Isabella falls, impaling her leg on a broken tree limb. Her father gets away, but she is recaptured, and more than that, she nearly dies. Knowing that they need her to ransom to the French, she is given to Wusamequin to heal. He takes her into his personal wigwam and begins to fight the demons making her ill, to return her spirit to her body.

One of the things we are asked to take as truth in this version of the world that Holder has created is that magic exists, as Wusamequin, as a medicine man, can tap into it. When he battles demons to save Isabella’s spirit, that’s literally what he is doing. When he walks in the spirit world, and stops the rain, and conjures the fair folk, that is magic. And props to Holder, because she writes it in so straightforward a manner that the reader accepts it without question.

I think, in part, the reason that this is so is because Isabella doesn’t entirely accept it at first; that is, when she sees the magic for the first time, it’s when she is injured and ill and suffering from blood loss. She puts the magic down to a fever dream, and because of that, when Wusamequin reaches for her hand and asks for her help, she gives it. Because it isn’t real, so why not? It isn’t until later, when she has begun to heal far faster than she should have that she realizes that whatever they did together was, in fact, magic. And then, having already done it, she accepts it.

And it isn’t just her wound that is healed by the magic she and Wusamequin are able to make together; it’s his wounds as well, a deep purple scar down his spine where he was attacked when his wife and son were murdered. That scar heals, and the hole in Wusamequin’s heart begins to heal as well.

At this point in the story, the People have moved to a hidden series of caves behind a waterfall, and Wusamequin, because of his status as medicine man, is given a private set of caves, where he cares for Isabella. He keeps her hidden away in these caves, bringing her food and everything she needs so that she never has to encounter the rest of the tribe. This is to protect her, but it is also to hide that she has healed so quickly. If the tribe knows she is well, they will know that a magic far more powerful than any Wusamequin has worked on his own has taken place, and they will ask questions, and he doesn’t want to have to answer them yet.

During the day, he leaves her in the care of four magical creatures called Makiawisug, who teach her a handful of words in the language of the People, and care for her needs. It is here that we really get a sense of the Beauty and the Beast narrative, because this character has been taken away from her home and her father. She is hidden away from the rest of the world in the domain of the Beast character. She has servants who wait on her, and all she wishes is given to her, but for her freedom. And she and the “Beast” begin to get to know one another, and break down the walls that lie between them. Isabella and Wusamequin work magic together, and there is a part of them inexplicably called to one another. They don’t understand it, and they try their hardest to fight against it, but it is there all the same.

One of the things that I really like in this book is the naming, and the attaching of certain identities to the names. Wusamequin does not call Isabella by her English name. From the moment she is captured, he gives her a name of the People. He calls her Mahwah, always and only Mahwah. She doesn’t know what the word means, and neither do we. Just as the other Native American names are undefined in Wusamequin’s part of the narrative, so is hers. We see only the reactions of the others to her new name. Sasious, the war chief, sneers, and Odina, the woman in love with Wusamequin, is full of hatred whenever she hears Isabella referred to as Mahwah. But it isn’t until halfway through the story that we learn that Mahwah means “beautiful.”

I love this. I love it because a) it gives an awful lot of insight into Wusamequin’s character, that he gives the name of Beauty to a woman he is supposed to hate entirely, and I love this b) because it means she is doubly named Beauty. Her English name, Isabella, means Beauty, and her Native American name means Beauty.

And the way that Holder uses the name is wonderful. In Isabella’s half of the narrative, she thinks of herself as Isabella. She is referred to in the narration as Isabella. But in Wusamequin’s half, she is referred to as Mahwah. He sees her as Mahwah. And one of the most important turning points of the novel is when she begins to refer to herself that way, too.

Though she is supposed to remain hidden, one day the makiawisug are agitated and fearful, and so, when Wusamequin does not return to the cave when he is supposed to, she goes in search of him. Discovered by the rest of the tribe to be healed, the women demand that she be put to work for her food, and since Wusamequin cannot reveal that she helps with his healing, he agrees. She becomes the slave, essentially, of three of the squaws, and they force her to go ice fishing with them. She has no blanket, no furs, nothing to protect her from the cold, and they stay out on the ice for hours. They force her then to gather the fish from the line, but she is too cold to do so, and then the ice breaks beneath her, and she falls into the cold water.

Wusamequin saves her, but she nearly dies from hypothermia. Alone in his cave, working his magic, he begs her to come back to him, begs her not to die, and in his desperation, he takes her in his arms to warm her and calls her “Isabella” for the first time. That is when she wakes and weakly informs him that her name is Mahwah.

This is such a beautiful moment, because they are closer here to “breaking the curse” than they have been at any point before. This is the moment when their barriers come down, and they admit how much they mean to each other. But they cannot, they have not broken down the final barriers. Isabella still clings to the idea that her people are not violent, that the violence enacted on the People of the River came at the hands of the French, that the English do not make senseless war. She tries to insist on this, but Wusamequin knows differently, and using his magic, he shows her the day his family was killed, the day the English attacked with no provocation. Seeing this almost breaks Isabella, and they only reason she does not is because she sees for the first time how much losing his wife and son broke Wusamequin. In the moment that she truly understands him, he sheds his first tear since their deaths. Isabella catches it, as Wusamequin takes it and, with his magic, uses it to bind his spirit into a medicine bag, which he gives to her. It’s his equivalent of giving her his heart, and it is utterly beautiful.

But even though her last barrier has been broken down, his has not, and at that moment, the cry goes through the village that they have captured an English soldier. It is Major Whyte, who was part of Isabella’s escort at the beginning of the story. He is a Yangee soldier, and Wusamequin means to kill him. Isabella follows him, and stops him. She stands between Wusamequin and the soldier and refuses to let him harm the man, who is dying. Instead, she asks Wusamequin to heal him, with her help. But in front of his tribe, Wusamequin cannot, and he is torn between his love for Mahwah and his hatred for her people. The tribe is demanding he take the Yangee’s scalp, and Mahwah is begging him to spare the man. Major Whyte tells Isabella that her father made it to the fort, but is ill himself, and then the man dies, relieving Wusamequin of the burden of his choice. But unfortunately, he has driven Isabella away.

She cannot stay with him, not any longer, not after seeing the hatred he still holds in his heart. And so, with the help of the Makiawisug, Isabella escapes from the camp without anyone seeing her or knowing she is leaving – or at least, that’s what she thinks, until she reaches the place where her horse is tied up and finds provisions waiting for her, along with the figure of a bear that is the twin to the one Wusamequin put his tear into for her. And she knows that he is letting her go.

She rides to the English fort to see her father, and the change back into English life is abrupt and disorienting. Here, too, Holder does a masterful job, for she captures so very well the truth that so many returned captives expressed during this time – though back among their people, they cannot help but feel that they no longer fit. After the time she has spent with the People, it is hard for Isabella to go back to corsets and stays and hearing the People referred to as savages and beasts. But she visits with her father and helps nurse him back to help, and tries to put Wusamequin out of her mind, impossible though that is.

And then the English burn all the remnants of her life with the People, including the medicine bag that holds Wusamequin’s spirit. The bag destroyed, Wusamequin lies dying. Isabella knows it, and falls into despair, for there is nothing she can do, she believes. Until Odina appears in the fort in the middle of the night, to take Isabella back, to save Wusamequin’s life.

And it works perfectly. When she sees him lying as if dead, she begs him to return to life, as he once did for her. She calls to his spirit across time and across the lands of the living and the dead, naming him as her soulmate, her true love, her Way. And the strength of the call of her spirit calls his back to her, and there we would leave the couple happily ever after, but the setting of this story provides more room for conflict than exist in the original, and the English followed Isabella and Odina, and they have attacked the tribe, and the battle is on.

But Mahwah has chosen her side, and the tribe has accepted her choice, and Wusamequin’s, and as she and Wusamequin make their magic together, they open a Path into the Land Beyond, a land where the English cannot follow them, a land where they can live out their days together in peace. Not all of the People accept this new Way – they stay to fight the English. But the children take the Path, and many of the warriors, and Wusamequin.

As Wusamequin goes through, the portal begins to waver, and if Isabella is going to join him, it has to be now. There’s a beautifully written, heart-wrenching moment when an English officer sees her and tries to talk her out of following the People, into returning to her father, but by this point in the story, Isabella, Mahwah, knows her heart and knows her Path, and she leaps into the Land Beyond, following her true love.

I adore this book. It is so richly and beautifully done, I can find very little fault with it. To the checklist.

Stronger protagonist? Without a doubt. Isabella is wonderful. I love her. She is kickass and strong willed and a fighter, but she is also naive, and short-sighted, and more than a little closed-minded. She is convinced that the Indians are savages and uncivilized, and so the story becomes about her growth as well as Wusamequin’s. She has to learn to see a person’s spirit beyond the color of their skin. And she does.

Backstory for the prince? Definitely. I like that this narrative is split between the two perspectives because it really allows us to get inside Wusamequin’s head, which makes his own story and grief and struggle that much more real.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? Not applicable, the way the story is told. She runs away and is under no obligation to return. She does so to save Wusamequin’s life.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast? Hell yes. I love the growth we see on both sides, and the way that both groups of people are shown as savage in their own way. The relationship that builds between the two, that attraction and admiration that is fought against because they think it shouldn’t be there, is wonderfully well done.

Stronger message? Without a doubt. Holder’s choice of setting takes the message of this story and pushes it so much further. It’s not just about learning to see beauty beyond the surface; it’s about learning to accept and celebrate differences of culture. It’s about imagining other complexly, which is an even better message than beauty being more than just appearances.

After yet another rereading, this remains one of my all time favorite fairy tale adaptations, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Target Audience: Adult/Young Adult

Summary: Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage. When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, "Cannot a Beast be tamed?"

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So in the corner of the very specific sub-genre of fairy tale adaptations, Robin McKinley’s Beauty is iconic. I can’t say it’s the first fairy tale adaptation ever written, because it isn’t (I checked). But the ones that came before were few and far between, only five or so in the years spanning 1945 to 1975. Beauty’s publication in 1978 ushered in a serious increase in the writing of this kind of novel. Was it responsible for that influx? Hard to say, and saying requires relying on the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, which I’d like not to do. But we can say that after Beauty showed up on the scene, suddenly there were a lot more of these fairy tale novels floating about.

And yet, for as iconic as it is, Beauty is actually a very simple novel. It sticks really very close to the original French tale. It is the story of a family with three daughters, named Grace, Hope, and Honour. However, while Grace and Hope keep their names as they grow up, no one calls Honour Honour, because when she was five and she asked her father to explain what the names meant, she found herself dissatisfied with her name, and proclaimed, “Hmph! I’d rather be Beauty!” And so Beauty she became.   

I really like this. I love how she gains the name Beauty because it shows us from the very beginning what kind of character we’re dealing with, here. Beauty has spunk. She’s spirited. And she plays into the message of this story – judging by appearances. Though, at five, wanting to be beautiful as opposed to honorable isn’t really something I can fault anyone for.

And the name comes back to bite her as she grows, for Beauty is really anything but. Her sisters are beautiful and graceful, but Beauty is short and awkward, with hands and feet that are too big and spots on her face. And she likes to ride horses and read books and has no time for romantic nonsense.

Like Dokey did in Belle, McKinley chooses to make the family a bit more likeable. Grace and Hope are not spoiled or silly or selfish. They are kind and sweet and loving. And their father isn’t foolish or overly idealistic – he loves each of his daughters and wants them to be happy. And he’s a good merchant. He takes huge risks as a merchant must if he wants to be successful, but he does right by those who work for him, including two young men who Grace and Hope eventually fall in love with.

There’s a wonderful scene between Hope and Beauty after Hope has fallen in love with a smith named Ger who helps do the ironwork for their father’s ships. Hope is fretting because she loves him, but he’s not the same station as they are, and she’s afraid her father won’t approve. Beauty’s response is to essentially tell her sister to stop being ridiculous because when has their father ever cared about anything like that. At which point Hope gets a little impatient with Beauty’s refusal to play along with the romance of the forbidden relationship. It’s a fun little scene that really shows the dynamic between the sisters.

And Ger becomes a pretty major player in the story beyond just being a side love interest, which I appreciated. When storms take out the father’s fleet of ships (and, presumably, Grace’s intended), it’s Ger who steps forward with the solution of moving to the country. He is originally from the mountains in the north, and he’s wanted to go back there. He says if he and Hope get married, the whole family can relocate and start over, and in that way, he becomes the vehicle that moves them to the country. He also serves to fill the role of a brother, which is a role that seems to get fairly consistently left out of these retellings.

The journey from the city to the mountains is quite long, especially in comparison to other adaptations, a few months as opposed to a matter of days. But once there, the family is able to adjust fairly quickly. It’s hardest for the father, but even he becomes acclimated to the new life. And for a while, they live quite happily.

And then comes the message that one of the lost ships may have made it back to port. Returning to try and salvage something of his fortune (and perhaps find Grace’s lost love) means being gone for about a year in this story, but the merchant feels he has to try. He asks his daughters if there is anything he can bring them, and Grace and Hope laughingly ask for jewels and fine gowns, as a joke (which I adore). But Beauty asks for some rose seeds, if he can find them, for she wishes to plant a rose garden, but hasn’t been able to.

And so he sets off, and they prepare for a year without him. And yet, five months later, he returns, haggard and weary, a perfect rose clutched in his hands. When they ask for an explanation, he tells them the story we expect from the father at this point in the tale, and really, the only deviation from the original is that this father didn’t have the audacity to try and claim the castle in the woods for himself. But he did pluck a rose for Beauty, and that brought the wrath of the Beast down on him.

Hearing his story, Beauty swears to go, and though the others try to talk her out of it, she is firm. When her father’s month is up, she will return.

And this she does. The initial arrival at the Beast’s palace is very similar to the one in Belle – lingering in the stable with her horse to put off the meeting as long as possible –  so much so that I can’t help but feel there was definitely some influence at work. But, like I said, iconic. My own short story adaptation of Beauty and the Beast takes a lot of its cues from this book, so I can't do too much calling out.

The difference here comes when Beauty actually enters the castle – and doesn’t meet the Beast. No, the place is deserted as she wanders through it, eventually ending at a room with a brass plaque proclaiming it Beauty’s Room. She is hesitant to enter, but a breeze pops up and ushers her in. She is allowed to wash and dress and become used to her surroundings before she is led by the breeze to the main dining hall to meet the Beast.

And almost immediately, Beauty defies the expectations on her in this story. He asks if she has come of her own free will, and she says that she has, and when he professes himself obliged, she quips back that he shouldn’t be, as he didn’t really give her much choice. She’s here of her own free will because it was that or let her father die, so it’s not as if she’s doing this out of the goodness of her heart.

I love it. I love this first meeting because again, we see Beauty’s spirit. She tells it like it is, even to this Beast who could easily kill her. She isn’t cowed, she isn’t silenced; she is as passionate and forceful as she can get away with being. The fear and panic don’t really set in until a) he asks her to marry him, and b) she finds herself locked in her room that night.

And where with Belle and Beast, the time spent in the castle took up less than a third of the novels, here it makes up the bulk of the book. We really get a detailed look into Beauty’s life with the Beast. We meet the breezes who serve her and get into arguments with her over what she will wear each day. We see her coaxing birds and butterflies to her window where before, there were no living creatures to be found. We see her trying to acclimate herself to a world with impossible magic working in it every day.

There is one scene that I would say was taken from Disney if this book hadn’t been published a good dozen years before the Disney animated film came out, so maybe it was the other way around (arches inquisitive eyebrow in Disney’s direction), and that’s the scene in the Beast’s library.

This Beauty is very like the Disney version of the same character in terms of her spirit and her bookishness, though McKinley’s Beauty spends more time reading Plato and Greek myths in their original language than fairy tales. But they both value intelligence, love to read, and are completely blown away when the Beast makes a gift out of an amazing and impossible library. Beauty in McKinley’s version makes a comment when she first sees it about how she didn’t know there were that many books in the world, and the Beast replies that, technically, there aren’t. Because it’s a magic library, and it contains all the books that haven’t been written yet. Personally, I want to go to there. I want to find myself on the shelf, and then finish the Heroes of Olympus series without having to wait for Riordan to finish the last three books.

But I digress.

Point is, we spend a lot of time watching the progression of the relationship between Beauty and the Beast, a progression that, honestly, was begun long before they even met. One of the scenes I love most in this book happens when Beauty first announces her intention to go live with the Beast. They’ve just opened the saddle bags and found his gifts, which include a box of rose seeds. Beauty laughs, and says that at least the Beast has a sense of humor, if nothing else. I love this scene because it shows us that, already, she’s connecting with him more empathetically than anyone else.

This connection does nothing but continue as the story progresses. And though there are certain things that mar her happiness – the Beast’s continued marriage proposals and the voices of invisible servants that Beauty can hear at night just before she falls asleep – for the most part, Beauty is happy, if homesick.

That homesickness overwhelms her once and only once, and it doesn’t end the way we might expect. In the original story, when Beauty asks to return home for a visit, the request is granted, but here, it isn’t. Here, the Beast tells Beauty that he cannot let her go, hinting that her stay with him is, at least in part, beyond his control. The truth that she will never see her home or family again overwhelms her, and in her panic, she faints. The Beast catches her before she can fall, but when he goes to put her down, she clings to him and won’t let go, though of course she isn’t aware of it.

This presents an interesting turn in the relationship, for when she wakes to find herself in his arms, she panics again, and he desperately tries to explain that it wasn’t his doing. This war within Beauty has interesting consequences. Suddenly, she is able to perceive more clearly than ever the magic that surrounds the place. She can hear her invisible servants more regularly, and she can sense when the Beast is close. Because she accepted the Beast on some level, she has begun to accept the magic that exists there as well.

And that’s when the dreams start. Beauty begins to dream of her family, her sisters and father, and when she questions the Beast about the dreams, he acknowledges that they are true visions. Through the dreams, she learns that Grace is on the verge of accepting a young minister’s proposal, though she has never forgotten the man she once loved but believes dead. And Beauty then learns that Grace’s love is, in fact, still alive, and has just made port with his wrecked and wounded ship. He’s seeking for Grace, but it will be months before he makes it to the mountains where they are, and by then, it will be too late.

And this is why Beauty finally asks to leave. For after her first request, she resolved to be content and never ask to return home again. But now, now there is something more than her desires at stake. Now, she begs to be allowed to return home and tell them this truth, to keep Grace from making a choice she’ll regret forever. Unhappy, the Beast allows her to go, but she must return in one week, he says, or he will die.

And this, for me, is where McKinley’s storytelling starts to weaken. Up to this point, this is an incredibly strong novel. But from here to the end . . . it’s just a little lacking, and I think it’s because, from here to the end, she tries too hard to keep to the original story. The problem with that is, the end of the original story is supremely lacking, too.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Beauty puts off telling Grace the truth of why she came home. This doesn’t make sense to me, since the need to tell Grace that her intended is still alive was the whole reason for the urgent return in the first place. And despite coming to the conclusion that she is out of place in the little house and misses the Beast greatly, she allows herself to be convinced that saying she’d stay a week means she can spend the seventh day with her family and go back to the Beast on the eighth, and there won’t be any harm done.

Which isn’t true at all. Which she realizes in a dream, and so leaves in the middle of the night. She spends most of the next day lost in the great woods, trying to find her way back, but she can’t. It isn’t until nightfall that she finally locates the road and makes it to the Beast’s castle, now empty, desolate, falling into ruin. Which is never fully explained, and it actually bothers me a little.

See, I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied with the explanation of the original story that the reason Beauty has to return is because the Beast will waste away without her. That message rankles a bit, the idea that life without a one true love isn’t worth living. And yes, okay, the Beast has been a Beast for two centuries and she was his last hope, and if she leaves, he can’t go through all that again, so he gives up, I get it. I do. But here, it’s not just the Beast – it’s everyone, for some reason. His castle is full of invisible servants, and when the Beast starts to die, somehow, they all disappear and the castle starts to self-destruct, I guess? I mean, you can intuit that it’s tied to the curse, but we don’t get an actual explanation, and that bothers me.

It’s also just a little too easy once Beauty finds the Beast. He’s on the verge of death, but she appears and apologizes and confesses her love, and suddenly . . . he’s better. Not human yet, just better. Magically. Sits up and is like, awesome. Great, thanks for that, guess I’ll live now. Like he wasn’t just about to die moments before. Maybe it’s my utter abhorrence of passivity, but to me, it kinda reads like the Beast was just throwing a sulk-fest. Maybe that’s unfair. But still.

And, just like in the original, the curse isn’t broken until she agrees to marry him, and that also rubs me the wrong way a bit, putting the emphasis on marriage as opposed to love, but meh, whatever. The real problem for me in this ending comes in that it just goes on too long. The curse is broken, and then there’s like, still five pages of novel left, where we get lots of exposition about how Beauty has now become beautiful but didn’t notice because she refused to look in mirrors, and how there’s a priest around in the castle somewhere who will marry the Beast and Beauty as soon as he remembers how, and how her family is now, somehow, being magically transported to where they are, but we get next to no exposition on the things I want to know – like why the Beast was cursed in the first place. Also, she says, “I love you and I’ll marry you,” and then two pages later, he asks her to marry him, which seems . . . redundant.

All in all, much as I wanted Beast last week to deal with the aftermath a little more, after reading this ending, I appreciate Napoli’s a bit more than I did, because McKinley deals with the aftermath too much.

But, ending aside, I do really like this adaptation. It’s a classic, and it reads like one. It’s simple, but it’s simplicity works for the story being told. McKinley draws her characters very well. So how does it stack up on the checklist?

Stronger protagonist? Check. Beauty is marvelous. I adore her. She’s active and kick-ass and spunky and just brilliantly well done.

Backstory for the Prince? Yeah, not really, and it’s kinda irritating. She almost gives it to us, but this whole issue of the curse, which is central to the novel and really built up along the way gets a dismissive, eh, this thing happened to my family, but they were good enough that it didn’t effect them, and then I came along and was not so good, but that’s really all the more vague exposition I want to give you. I know I set up this big reveal, but meh. Not really important anymore. I was really frustrated by the lack of curse explanation, in case you couldn’t tell.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? Marginally. I mean, yes, it is stronger than the original story, as the logic she reasons under is pretty sound. He said she could stay a week. To me, that means seven days with family and travel back on day eight. On the other hand, though, Beauty knew she should go back, that she was stretching it by staying another day, so I’ll give it a check, but only just barely.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast? Check and check and check. This McKinley did really well. I loved watching the friendship develop and unfold, and I loved the first moment when Beauty thinks about how she loves the Beast, and then stops short, because she couldn’t really mean love love, right? Right? It’s very well done, because if there’s one thing McKinley can do, it’s paint fantastic relationships.

Message that beauty comes in many different forms? Yes. Though part of me wishes that Beauty hadn’t grown into her beauty in the end, the rest of me adores that the fact that she became classically beautiful eventually couldn’t have been less important to the story, and I love that Beauty had to learn to see her own beauty, as well as that of the Beast’s.

Overall, this book is iconic and well known for a reason. Yes, it has it’s weak spots, but it does improve on the original tale in almost every way. The ending is a little bit lacking for me, but the rest of the book makes up for it. The book is elegant and well done in its simplicity, and if you’re going to get started in the sub-genre of fairy tale adaptations, you could do worse than starting here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guest Post: Disney's Beauty and the Beast

 Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1989)

or “How I Learned How To Stop Worrying And Love the Disney”

(a guest post by Matt Guion)

In the world of faerie tale research and study (with which I have only a passing relationship) one recurring name is Jack Zipes. Zipes has made a career out of researching faerie tales, studying their history and purpose, writing essays, and putting together anthologies. The man is brilliant when it comes to faerie tales, but he does have one unfortunate blind spot regarding faerie tale adaptations that came out in visual media after the 1920s . . . in other words, right about when Disney broke onto the scene.

See, Zipes is a bit of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to faerie tales. (He could give my book-reviewing persona a run for his money.) He thinks that modern visual adaptations, especially those from Disney, use faerie tales for the trite purpose of promising audiences an easy happily ever after. Okay, fair enough, we have gotten to a point with the stories we tell where we prefer the easy happy ending over one we have to work (and often get hurt) for. And Disney is certainly notorious for those kinds of stories, but not, I think, to the degree Jack Zipes believes they are.

Disney has a pretty consistent formula when it comes to their faerie tale adaptations, so much so that when it was rumored that they would be making a Rapunzel adaptation (which eventually, of course, became Tangled) I made a number of predictions based on the formula, several of which did actually turn out to be right. Why am I telling you this? Well, Cassie has set me the task of reviewing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, easily the best faerie tale adaptation they’ve done (in my opinion, anyway) and my favorite full length animated feature from Disney. The problem is that most of you have probably seen the movie and know it backwards and forwards, so to do a review in the way Cassie does it would be, in many ways, redundant. So to make this a bit more interesting, I’m going to take you through the formula as I understand it, which goes as follows.

1-Humbling and lifting up the protagonist, making him or (usually) her seem much more broken, but also much more virtuous.

2-Polarization of the antagonist, making him or (again, usually) her much more sinister.

3-Making the love interest more . . . . interesting.

4-Addition or increased importance of side characters.

5-Animal friends.

6-Addition of subplots.

7-Comic relief. Lots of it.

8-Sanitization of the grosser bits.

9-Clearer (or sometimes different) message and morals.

10-An actual context for the story.

Got it? Think I’m over thinking this? Sorry, it’s what I do. Let’s dive in!

So the first thing we get, immediately, is that backstory for the prince that Cassie was looking for. All we know from the original story is that some magical brouhaha transformed him into a hideous beast for no particular reason. Okay . . . But here, there’s a reason. This isn’t just a prince. This is a spoiled, bratty little prick of a prince, who judges people solely on appearances -- pay attention to this “judging solely appearances” thing. It’s kind of important -- and having “no love in his heart.” This is some great exposition from Disney, not just in the story itself, but in the way they do it. The animation shows us a bunch of stained glass pictures of the scenes while the dulcet voice of David Ogden Stiers narrates the backstory. This actually harkens back to the classic Disney faerie tale movies, which started with pictures in a book and a
narrator providing the exposition. Makes us remember that, despite its real life context, this is still a faerie story.

So already, in the first three minutes of the film, we’re given more information on the prince/Beast than we ever got in the original story. (Formula point #3 - added interest) We get some explanations for a few other things as well, namely the importance of the rose, though they aren’t entirely clear until later. The main thing we get here is a mythology. The magic here has rules, and isn’t just arbitrary depending on what the author needs at any particular moment. (Formula point #10 - context for the story) The beast is a beast until he can learn to love and be loved in return, which of course is quite apropos for a prince who has “no love in his heart.” But there’s a time limit. He has until his twenty-first birthday, at which point the enchanted rose the enchantress gave him will have wilted. This, incidentally, strikes me as a little off, just because it kind of assumes that if you can’t learn to love by a certain time in your life, you’ll never learn to love at all. But there has to be some way to create urgency, I suppose, so let’s move on.

We are now introduced to Belle . . . yes, Belle, which is the French word for “Beauty," and it’s worth pointing out that the original story is French, so the original Beauty wasn’t actually named Beauty, but Belle . . . but moving on. This Belle is vastly different from her story counterpart. First off, she’s odd. Or at least, she appears so in the eyes of her “poor provincial town.” Why? Because she’s intelligent and thoughtful and
imaginative and finds great enjoyment in (shock and horror!) reading. (I always love the book shop owner’s reaction to her borrowing her favorite book again. “You’ve read it twice!” Um . . . only twice?) This is a huge step for Disney, as many (if not most) of their previous female protagonists were essentially the ideals for the typical passive woman. Belle’s personality--and the fact that she maintains it throughout the movie and doesn’t change for the sake of “love”--is Disney telling young women that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be smart and strong and independent, and it’s okay to read. And the fact that she does get the prince in the end (spoilers) also tells us that these two ideas -- that you can be strong and independent and fall in love and get married -- are not irreconcilable. Belle is not the passive and submissive young lady we see in many faerie tales, but neither is she a super woman. As we’ll learn later in the movie, she is also flawed. I would argue that of all the Disney “princesses,” she is the most like a real person, which is why audiences gravitated toward her, and still do.

We are also, during this opening sequence, introduced to our antagonist. Yes, this movie has an antagonist. The original story really doesn’t, at least not a strong one. The closest it comes is Belle’s spoiled siblings, since they’re the ones who try to keep her from returning to the Beast, but it’s still Belle’s stupidity that causes her to be late. So Disney gave us a solid antagonist where none existed before. (Formula point #2)
What’s great about this particular antagonist, though, is that he’s not immediately obvious as an antagonist, unlike many others from Disney movies. Gaston is obnoxious and arrogant, but he’s also good-looking and vaguely charming. He resembles, in many ways, the handsome princes that usually end up getting the girl at the end of the story. And he wants Belle. Belle, of course, being an intelligent young woman, does not want him. And it’s through Gaston’s desperation to get Belle as his wife that his true antagonistic colors start to emerge. Our first real hint of this is after Belle rejects his marriage proposal, to which he responds “I’ll have Belle as my wife. Make no mistake about that.” That’s actually a pretty frightening moment, following a really comical one.

In the following scene, we meet Belle’s father, Maurice. In this story, it’s just Belle and her dad. No siblings. And no indication that they were ever rich. Rather than being a merchant, her father is an inventor. And like Belle, he is considered odd by the rest of the community, and is something of an outcast. I love the dynamic between these two. It’s clear they’ve always been sort of on the edges of society, and have had to depend
on each other more than anything. (Formula point #1 - humbling of protagonist) We get an even stronger sense of this in the Broadway musical of this movie, which has the two of them singing of how they’ll always love and support one another “No Matter What.” It’s clear that Belle needs her father as much as her father needs her. This makes the moment when Belle takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner that much stronger, because we’ve seen the strong bond between them.

Maurice gets lost on his way to a fair where he was to show off his new invention, and ends up at the castle per the original story. The Beast, however, is not nearly as welcoming as in the original story. In fact, he doesn’t even know Maurice is there at first. Instead, he is taken care of by the household staff. In most versions of the story, the household staff is either gone completely or they exist in some sort of ethereal form, providing service, but invisibly. In the Disney version . . . they’ve been transformed into household objects. Which sounds silly, until you consider what this does for the story. First, despite the fact that we have clocks and teapots walking around and doing people things, the movie never loses sight of the fact that they are actually human, showing us that the Beast didn’t just affect his own life with his selfishness, but everyone around him. It also provides some other characters to interact with aside from Beauty and the Beast, and of course, provides many opportunities for comic relief. (Points 4, 5, 6, and 7 - important side characters, animal friends, subplots, comic relief) But that isn’t their sole purpose, and you find yourself rooting for these characters and feeling bad for them when things go wrong.

It’s these household objects that open the house to Maurice, and when the Beast finds out, he’s supremely pissed and locks Maurice away. He hasn’t changed much. And he doesn’t offer him an ultimatum, either. Where Beast in the original story seems like a good person fighting his animal nature, Beast in this story is a bad person who has pretty much succumbed to his animal nature, which makes his growth that much more dramatic and interesting.

When Belle finds out her father’s missing, she bloody well goes after him and offers herself in his place. But in the same instance where she is making this sacrifice, she is also revealing her biggest flaw. Despite the fact that Belle has spent her whole life being judged and considered an oddball and an outcast, here she is judging the Beast based on his monstrous appearance. I mean, okay, he’s kind of a jerk and doesn’t treat her well, but you can’t tell me there isn’t some prejudice on Belle’s part based on his appearance as well. There’s none of this “love at first sight” crap that we get in a lot of other Disney movies. The Beast has to earn her love, and Belle has to get over her hateful feelings for the Beast.

This all begins to occur when the Beast saves her life. (And don’t start giving me “damsel in distress” crap. She was set upon by wolves. She’s not going to fight them off all by herself, I don’t care how strong a character she is.) And it’s worth pointing out that Belle was at least partly at fault here. She knew the west wing was forbidden (insert obligatory White House joke here [We aren't allowed to give tours of the West Wing until the President has gone up to the residence -- CG]) and yet she went anyway, probably, again, because of that prejudice she felt. It was kind of an act of spite, in a way. Maybe the Beast overreacted, but she was endangering his spell. But anyway, this is where they finally have a reconciliation of sorts, though their relationship still has to develop further. And this is another thing I appreciate about the Disney adaptation: the relationship actually develops, and not just via dinner conversations and awkward proposals, but by actually spending time with each other, getting to know each other, and developing as people. Belle is learning not to judge by appearances, and the Beast is learning how to be with another human being.

Meanwhile, we have Gaston plotting to exploit Maurice’s story about the Beast and having him put into a mental institution in order to get Belle to agree to marry him, which is one of the more diabolical Disney villain plots. When her father falls ill trying to get Belle away from the Beast (sidenote, he actually tries, unlike his book counterpart, who just goes home and weeps into his newfound moneybags) the Beast allows Belle to go home to him. He doesn’t make her promise to eventually return, he just lets her go, even though he knows the spell hasn’t been broken. Though he has learned to love her, Belle does not yet love him in return. He’s sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of hers. Belle reunites with her father and learns of Gaston’s plan. And, when Gaston offers his ultimatum--marry me or watch your father be taken away--Belle takes the third option: proving her father right by showing them the Beast.

And then we get Gaston’s call to kill the beast, featuring some of the best theme-exemplifying lyrics in the movie (“We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us.”) Still through all this, Gaston has not emerged as the fire-breathing villain that we see in other stories, but still as an arrogant man who wants to kill off that which he doesn’t understand. And he is not alone in this. This is human nature in action, and Gaston represents an unquestioned allegiance to that prejudice. This also provides us with our reason for Belle not going back. She didn’t just forget, Gaston kept her away. (Though, this is kind of immaterial, as the Beast just let Belle go with no particular obligation to return.)

The rest of the story is pretty standard. Gaston tries to kill the Beast and almost succeeds, but dies in the attempt, mainly because he was so desperate to kill this thing and win Belle as his wife that he climbed out onto a high, steep roof in a rain storm to do so. Yeah, smart move, guy. Anyway, Belle declares her love for him just as the last petal falls, the Beast and the others are transformed, happily ever after, etc.

So Disney adhered pretty closely to its usual formula, but it did so in a much more inventive way. The Disneyfication process is exactly what this story needed.

1- Humbling of the protagonist: Protagonist was never rich and is considered an outcast from society for being smart.

2- Polarizing of the antagonist: Antagonist actually exists, exemplifying prejudiced human nature, which is kind of the theme of this story.

3- Love interest more interesting: Love interest gets a backstory and, actually, more development than the protagonist.

4- Added importance of side characters: Side characters, like Belle’s father and the household staff, are also affected by the events and have their own growth.

5- Animal friends: Not so much “animal friends” as “household item friends,” but close enough.

6- Subplots: Drama of the staff, plus Gaston’s plot to marry Belle serve as subplots.

7- Comic Relief: It’s funny.

8- Sanitation of original: Eh, not much from the original story to clean up, honestly.

9- Moral or message: See Cassie’s checklist, below.

10- Context for the story: Actual mythology and backstory for the plot.

But how does it stack up with Cassie’s checklist?

Stronger protagonist? Check. Belle is strong and intelligent, but also flawed and very human. She has to grow in this story, and does so. She falls in love with the Beast despite appearances, and moreover, does so without sacrificing any of her stronger personality traits. She’s my favorite Disney princess for a reason.

Backstory for the prince? Check. If anything, the Beast actually does MORE developing than the protagonist, and his development is parallel to Belle’s. We know why he was transformed into a Beast, and he easily has the best character arc in the story.

Stronger reason for Belle’s non-return? Check. For one, she technically didn’t have to, and she was never actually told about the time limit. For another, she was trapped by Gaston.

Better building of the relationship? Check, though a qualified one. Don’t get me wrong, the relationship grows between them, but we don’t see much of it. It happens over the course of a musical number. But to be fair, this is something that’s going to be easier to do in a novel and, in the world the movie created, we still get to see how the relationship develops over a period of time. Also, that library? Best freaking gift ever.

Stronger message? Check. This is supposed to be a story about not judging by appearances and seeing with more than your eyes. While the story doesn’t accomplish this terribly well, Disney gets it spot on, not just with Belle and her reaction to the Beast, but with the Beast’s backstory, Gaston’s personality, and just the innate prejudiced human nature that we all have. (Formula point #9 - Better moral or message)

Simply put, there’s a reason why people tend to remember this version of the story and not the original. What Jack Zipes fails to grasp -- aside from the fact that some faerie tales, simply put, just suck -- is that, just as faerie tales have evolved throughout history to suit their audience, Disney adaptations do much the same thing. They don’t always succeed, I’ll grant you -- I’m looking at you, Little Mermaid -- but in the case of Beauty and the Beast, I see nothing wrong with allowing Disney’s version to become the definitive
version of the tale.


Thanks, Matthew! Look for another guest post later this month!

Also, for more fairy tale fun, go watch this thing that I helped with (and that the author of this post wrote)!

See you Friday!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Orasmyn is the prince of Persia and heir to the throne. His religion fills his heart and his mind, and he strives for the knowledge and leadership his father demonstrates. But on the day of the Feast of Sacrifices, Orasmyn makes a foolish choice that results in a fairy’s wretched punishment. He is turned into a beast, a curse to be undone only by the love of a woman.

Thus begins Orasmyn’s jounrey through the exotic Middle East and sensuous France as he struggles to learn the way of the beast, while also preserving the mind of the man. This is the story of his search, not only for a woman courageous enough to love him, but also for his own redemption.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling, with a perspective shift

So, Napoli tells us in her closing author’s note that the specific version of Beauty and the Beast that she chose to retell is the one from Charles Lamb’s collection, a version that specifies that the Beast was once a Prince from Persia named Orasmyn. And knowing that Persia is known for its roses, Napoli says, the rest of the story came to her easily.

Beast is very much the prince’s story. Our Beauty (Belle) doesn’t even show up until the last seventy pages or so (of 260). So this is very much the prince’s story.

We meet Orasmyn just before a kingdom-wide sacrificial feast. Orasmyn doesn’t hunt – it’s the one disappointment his father has in him. He doesn’t hunt, and he cannot stand to see animals slaughtered, necessary though he knows it is. And so on this day before the sacrifice, Orasmyn chooses to be one of the people who prepares the sacrificial animals, so that he doesn’t have to be the one who kills them.

And yet, even as Napoli is showing us this supposedly tender side of our prince, we see another side emerge as well. We see Orasmyn dismiss his mother at one point as silly and emotional because she offers him a book of poetry to read. He tells her in a haughty tone that he doesn’t need help in choosing his reading. And when she replies that everyone needs help sometimes, he tells her flatly, “Princes don’t.” Remember this – it will become important later on.

In case you were wondering, no, Orasmyn is not a beast at this point. He is fully human. So what horrible misdeed did he perform to cause him to be cursed? He allowed an imperfect animal to be sacrificed to his God.

Wait – what?

Okay, let’s be honest. I was a bit disappointed in that at first, too. Especially give the situation: As Orasmyn and his servant are preparing the camel for sacrifice, the servant notices that there is a tiny, thin scar on the camel’s hump. This means that, at some point, someone took fat from the camel’s hump for food. It was long ago, and the scar is easily hidden, but the edicts of the sacrifice are clear – an animal who has known pain at the hands of humans cannot be sacrificed on the humans’ behalf to God. But there isn’t another camel to offer, and if they don’t sacrifice the camel, a) people will ask why, and the servant will be punished for failing in his duties, and b) the poor of the city will have no camel meat and fat to last them through the winter. And so Orasmyn decides that, because his God is called the Merciful One, he will forgive this small transgression.

So, how is that worthy of a curse? I asked the same thing upon first reading. It seemed like a major overreaction on the part of this particular spirit against the prince.

Until, that is, you start reading between the lines. See, the reason Orasmyn made the decision he did was because he couldn’t remember exactly what the scriptures dictated, and rather than ask for help – because princes don’t need help – from one of the holy men, or take the matter to his father, Prince Orasmyn ranks the need to save face over following the edicts of his faith. So, there’s more going on here than just the camel.

So prince Orasmyn is cursed, cursed to be killed by his father on the following day, and only the love of a woman can save him. He goes to his father and tells him of the curse, and he and his father come up with a plan to thwart the spirit’s curse: Orasmyn will lock himself in his rooms the whole day and unbar the door for no one, and his father swears that he will kill no man, no matter what circumstances arise.

But, yeah, when do attempts to thwart a curse or prophecy ever work out, hmm, Sleeping Beauty? The spirit catches Orasmyn before he can make it to his rooms and turns him into a lion. And as it so happens, the king is hunting lions the next day! This bodes well!

Orasmyn has no choice but to hide in the wilderness surrounding his palace and try to avoid the hunt. Man and beast war inside him – as Orasmyn, he knows the tricks the hunters will use to lure the lions to the kill, but as a lion, his instincts are strong, and he cannot always overcome them. We see this as he eats the animal the lionesses bring down for him, eating blood and unclean flesh though his religion forbids it. Likewise, he gives into the lion’s instinct to mate with the lionesses, though the touch of a woman not his wife is also considered unclean.

Despite these things, Orasmyn hopes that if he can survive to midnight, the curse will be broken. Unfortunately (predictably), that doesn’t happen. Though he does survive – his father nearly kills him, but Orasmyn manages to escape – when the next day dawns, he remains in lion form, and now he has to deal with that. He cannot stay in Persia – he cannot hide forever, and sooner or later, he would face his death – so he makes plans to travel to India, the land of the lions. For lions, he reasons, are the kings of the animal world, and if he cannot wear a human crown, he can join a pride and be king in that way.

Except that, if that worked, this wouldn’t end up being Beauty and the Beast, now would it? The war between the lion’s body and the man’s mind continually gets in Orasmyn’s way. He doesn’t know or understand the way’s of the lion. He can’t hunt. He is a strange male, and so he cannot get any of the prides he encounters to accept him. After two years of wandering, alone, constantly in danger, he gives it up and travels back to Persia, defeated.
He needs a new plan, and it is when he encounters once more the gardens of Persia that he remembers something his father once told him about the roses of France. He remembers, too, the spirit’s words that the love of a woman would save him. So he prepares to journey to the wilderness of France, to cultivate a place to make his home, to make it beautiful and lure a woman there to fall in love with first his flowers, and then with him. He decides, too, that man must win out, and so he does what he can to return to the discipline of his religion, as much as it is possible for him.

I love the way that Napoli works in this religious aspect. Orasmyn is a devout Muslim, a religion that, when he was human, he followed as rigorously as possible. But in lion form, he often cannot, or he forgets in lieu of the lion’s needs, and this is a source of great conflict for him. Napoli writes that inner conflict very well, as well as the vacillation between hope and hopelessness, between man in control and beast in control.

In France, Orasmyn finds an abandoned castle, and makes a home there, stealing flowers and seeds and planting them. And then, suddenly one night, a strange man appears, looking for shelter from a storm. Orasmyn hides, not knowing how to approach the situation. The man eats old food from the larder and makes a fire and makes himself at home. Orasmyn watches, hidden. Until, that is, the next morning, when the man tries to take one of the roses that Orasmyn has so carefully cultivated and worried over. Then he shows himself, and the man panics and falls to his knees before the beast.

Thing is, Orasmyn doesn’t really want to hurt the man. In fact, it wasn’t until the man appeared that Orasmyn realized how desperately he missed the sound of human speech, and how desperately lonely he has been for the past three years. He wants the man to stay, to converse, and so he tries to write in the dirt, but at the sight of the words, the man panics even further, believing Orasmyn to be a demon who will punish the man’s family for the transgression of harming the roses. So he babbles his explanation, that his youngest girl wanted the rose, and he only wants to be able to offer her a gift.

This sparks Orasmyn’s interest. Taking advantage of what the man believes to be true, and of his fear, Orasmyn demands the child, or, he claims, he will visit doom upon all the man’s family. He gives him three weeks, and then he spends those three weeks preparing for a human child’s arrival. He catches a fox kit to tame for her, steals flour and sugar and yeast for her, makes all these preparations and truly hopes for the first time in years. He will be as a big cat to this young girl; she will grow up with him as her guardian, and she will grow to love him, and the curse will be broken.

Except, of course, that when the girl appears, she’s no child. She’s a woman fully grown, which was not part of the plan.

So the last seventy pages of the novel are dedicated to the Beauty and the Beast story we know, except that we get to see it from the beast’s point of view – his struggle with this obstinate, headstrong girl; his struggle to control the beastly impulses warring inside him; his struggle to find new hope when faced not with a child he can mold, but a full grown woman who resents having been taken from her family. She does not understand what he wants, and he cannot answer, because he also does not understand what he wants.

Slowly, though, they reach a tentative balance. Orasmyn longs to tell Belle everything, but he dares not – he doesn’t know what will negate Belle’s chances of breaking the curse, doesn’t know how he might be further punished for telling. But he works to show her that he is not fully beastly, and slowly, she begins to trust him. She calls him Mon Ami, my friend, and I love that in this version, his name to Belle is not Beast. She is trying to find the good, especially once she begins (I think) to suspect that he is more than he seems.

And she makes attempts. She lets him read her journal, first of all, opening herself up to him in a way that she hadn’t before, and though her words anger him often, they also help him understand her better. Although, he bristles at the idea that he needs her, as writes more than once. After that, things begin to change. She builds a hearth in the woods so they can eat together, she begins to share his prayer time with him, she reads books aloud to him.

And yet, always, he is aware of the beast barely in control. He is aware always of the need to feed, of the ways in which he sees all living things, including Belle’s fox cub, including Belle herself, as meat that can be eaten. He is aware of Belle as a woman, and the beastly desire to mate with her that both overwhelms and disgusts him. As she becomes more open with him, he becomes more and more filled with self loathing for what he is and the struggles he cannot overcome, and so when she asks to return to her father, he lets her go, hoping the absence will help.

In the three weeks she is gone, he undergoes new preparations. He plants a new garden for her, he plucks the feathers of ducks and geese so she can have a more comfortable place to sleep. He smokes meat in the smokehouse she built. He realizes that he has fallen in love with her, and he needs her to come back more than he has ever needed anyone – which he hates and scoffs at as weak because he’s a prince, and he doesn’t need anyone.

And then she doesn’t come back, and he realizes she isn’t going to and that all his hard work has been for nothing, and that he’s so tired of this constant fight, and he can’t go through all of this with another girl. It has to be Belle, and if it isn’t going to be Belle, then that’s it. He’s done.

But then she does come back. And she finds him close to death, and she tells him that she returned because she missed her life with him, because he needs her more than anyone ever has, and this time when she says it, he doesn’t bristle at the idea. He finally admits and acknowledges that, yes, he does in fact need her, and that’s okay. It’s okay for him to need someone else.

And yeah, she admits that she loves him and the curse breaks, but personally, I don’t think her loving him was entirely the reason.

And . . . that’s where we end. He’s human for about three lines, and that’s the end of the book. It’s very abrupt.

Napoli does a lot of interesting things with this story, that make filling out the checklist an interesting challenge. But here goes.

Stronger protagonist? Well, I meant Belle. I meant the Beauty character in the story, and if we go by that definition, then . . . no, not really. I mean, she’s fine, and I don’t want to slap her, which is an improvement, but there’s not really too much to her, and I don’t fully understand some of her motivations. She’s a good enough character, but she doesn’t stand out that much to me. However, I find I don’t care that much. Because this isn’t her story. It’s Orasmyn’s. It’s the beast’s. Belle in this adaptation is really a secondary character, and for a secondary character, she’s fine. As a secondary character, the gaps that would be unpardonable in a main character don’t bother me. So, no, this point doesn’t get a check, but the lack of one doesn’t count against the book, either.

Backstory for the prince? Definitely. And I love what Napoli’s done here. First of all, the Beast character is other to us not just because he’s a lion, but also because he comes from a background that is foreign to me as a reader and likely to majority of the rest of her readers as well. Orasmyn is a Persian prince, a practicing and devout Muslim. So he has customs and practices that are strange for us to read about, but also help us to understand his struggle and his shortcomings. I love that what Orasmyn has to overcome is his own pride, his way of viewing the world from a position of privilege. I love that the conclusion he has to come to is not just becoming capable of being loved, but also that it’s okay to need people and it’s impossible to live an entirely solitary life. Originally, I wasn't entirely behind the reason for the curse, but it grew on me, especially reading between the lines. So firm check here.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return. Nope, not really, but again, it didn’t bother me because this isn’t Beauty’s story.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast. I’d say so. I love the progression we see. That Orasmyn’s original plan is a kind of seduction that then falls apart completely. In the beginning, she is a means to an end. A way to break the curse, and that’s all. But as he gets to know her, that changes. I think him falling in love with her was completely unexpected. I think that caught him off guard, which I love. I also absolutely adored the blending of the two religions. Belle is French, and so a Catholic, while Orasmyn is a Muslim, but they find the similarities, and eventually build into their daily routine a shared prayer time that is a marvelous hybrid of the religious practices of both. It’s the hippie liberal in me that loves the message that two people from such different faiths can acknowledge that they worship the same God.

Message that beauty comes in many different forms? Again, not really. But the message of connectivity that the novel relates is just as strong a message.

So, despite meeting only two of the five check points, I enjoyed this novel, and I felt it was well done. Parts of it dragged a bit, and I wanted more out of the end, but overall, I was pleased with the read. It’s a fascinating perspective to explore, and I applaud Napoli for writing it so well.   

Friday, June 1, 2012

Belle by Cameron Dokey

Belle by Cameron Dokey

Target Audience: Young Adult/Teen

Summary: Belle is convinced she has the wrong name, as she lacks her sisters’ awe-inspiring beauty. So she withdraws from society, devoting her time to wood carving. Secretly, Belle longs to find the fabled Heartwood Tree. If carved by the right hands, the Heartwood will reveal the face of one’s true love.

During a fierce storm, Belle’s father stumbles upon the mysterious Heartwood – and encounters a terrifying and lonely Beast. Now Belle must carve the Heartwood to save her father, and learn to see not with the eyes of her mind, but with the eyes of her heart.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So I love Cameron Dokey almost entirely, and I’ve read this book before, more than once, but not for a while now. And when I brought it to mind as a novelization, my recollection was that it was okay, but nothing out of the ordinary.

God, memory sucks. This book is wonderful! Maybe it comes with finishing it on the heels of having read the original, but man! I love what Dokey does with this story! I don’t know what my past memory self was thinking!

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The book starts out with a classic Cameron Dokey opening. A prologue on the nature of some aspect of storytelling. Belle’s treats on Beauty, capital B, and the saying that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Basically, Bella calls bullshit on the saying. She acknowledges that it’s a nice idea, but realistically? Not true.

See, Bella has spent her life feeling inadequate. Her eldest sister was born at midnight, with hair as dark as night and eyes a piercing blue, and her mother immediately named her Celestial Heavens. The middle sister was born just as the sun rose, with golden hair and eyes blue as the sky, and her mother named her April Dawn. And then came Bella, born at noon, plain brown hair and eyes, and her mother had no name for her at all. It was her father who named her Annabella. So she has spent her life disappearing in the shadows of her sisters’ Beauty (again, capital B). Her family calls her Bella, which means beauty, and she hates it, because she has no Beauty to be seen. She hides herself away from society whenever permitted

I appreciate that the mother is present in this story, that it contains both a loving mother and a loving father, and that the sisters, while concerned with appearances and social propriety, are not shallow and silly. They live the life that city society requires of them, and they become easily frustrated with Bella, who hides herself away, but they are not catty or bitchy, and that’s a welcome change. The same is true of the mother.

And when the father’s ships are lost at sea and the family must sell their home and move to a cottage in the country, the whole family takes to the change with fortitude and forward-thinking, and it is refreshing, really. Celeste is a born cook, which she never had a chance to realize before. April is a nurturer, and Bella fair thrives on being away from city society. In fact, it’s not until they become poor that the family really becomes close with one another.

And one of the things they often do to pass the time is tell stories, specifically of the Wood they passed through to get to their home, and what lies at its heart. Some say a monster who cannot leave, but their father’s closest friend tells them the legend of the Heartwood Tree, a tree that grew on the grave of a young woman taken from her lover before her time. It is said that for one pure-hearted person, the person who has the ability to see the face of True Love, the Tree will relinquish a branch, to be carved to show the truth. This story grows in Bella’s heart because her one true skill (she feels) is wood carving, which she learned at her father’s knee. She longs to find the Heartwood Tree, for she hopes that in carving what lies in the heart of the tree, she will find the way to see her own Beauty.

But then comes the father’s trip back to town (where in place of asking for a rose, Bella jokingly says, “You could bring me back a branch of the Heartwood Tree if you find it”), the return home, and the storm that lands him in the heart of the Wood, at the mansion where stands the Heartwood, the mansion where the Beast lives. As the father relates this story once home, he reveals that he has brought home a branch of that fabled Tree, and for one terrifying moment, the characters – and the readers, too, let’s be real here – fear that he committed the sacrilege of breaking off a branch. But in the next moment, he assures them he did not, that the Tree gave up the branch to him.

So where’s the wrongdoing on his part? Well, it doesn’t exist, not really. Instead, the Beast appears on schedule, but acting like . . . a selfish Beast. He’s upset with the father because the Heartwood Tree gave him a branch, and the Beast wanted it for himself. I love this. I love that the Beast is acting like the Beast we all know him to be. In the original, though he was supposedly cursed for some ill behavior, he acts more or less like a perfect gentleman. I appreciate, then, that here, he’s still acting like someone who deserves to be under a curse.

He agrees that he will let the father go free if he can look into the Beast’s eyes and hold his gaze for five heartbeats. But the father cannot, and so either he or the daughter he claims can see what is hidden inside any piece of wood must return. One of them, he says, must carve out what is hidden in the Heartwood; only then can they be set free.

And again, Bella instantly insists on taking her father’s place. But there’s more going on here than just family loyalty of guilt. There’s also the knowledge that her father won’t be able to carve the Heartwood, but she knows that she can. In addition, she wants to carve the Heartwood. She’s hoping that it will free her, as well.

So she goes to the Beast. And he asks the same thing of her that he asked of her father – to look into his eyes for five heartbeats. But she cannot. She cannot bring herself to look at his face. This exchange takes the place of asking her to marry him, and I like it a lot more. Because it brings the essence of the curse back to being able to see something truly.

I also like that it’s made clear that she won’t be captive forever. Once she carves the Heartwood, she is free to return home. That’s all the Beast needs her for. She is captive until then, both by him and by the magic of the place, but it isn’t a forever kind of deal.

But hard as she tries, she cannot see into the Heartwood. And it frustrates her because she feels as if she’s being cut off from her answers, but she also knows that the Beast is waiting for her to succeed, that he’s desperate for her to.

I thought the book was going to have some pacing issues, to be honest, because Bella doesn’t arrive at the Beast’s palace until a little more than two thirds of the way through the book, and I thought, How on earth is this relationship going to be effectively established in so little time? But I’ve really got to stop underestimating Ms. Dokey, because boy, did she hit this out of the park. We get a handful of scenes between the two, but each is used masterfully. There’s one scene in particular that I love. It occurs a little while after Bella has come, when, as he’s going to ask her to look into his eyes, she cuts him off, delays him, and asks for a ride out on the lake instead. She then proposes a game born out of a) his observation that she asks an awful lot of questions and b) her frustration that he won’t answer any of them.

The game is this: they must each go as long as they can without asking a question. Whoever asks first is guaranteed an honest reply, but also has to honestly answer two questions. Bella loses, of course, but the question exchange that is started lasts far longer than three questions, and the questions become really deep and important, about the nature of the curse, and why Bella is so desperate to succeed with the Tree. One of the things the Beast reveals is that part of the curse is that he cannot see clearly. The things that pain him are crystal clear. But the things he most wants to observe are hidden from him. He cannot see Bella’s face. It will not reveal itself to him, just as she cannot bring herself to observe his face.

He also tells her that the waters of the lake will show someone their truest desire, and here’s where the scene gets interesting – she looks expecting to see her family, and instead, she sees herself with the Beast, and it angers her. She stands in the boat, demanding to know what his game is, and he’s trying to get her to sit down before she falls, and then she does fall, straight into the water, and doesn’t come back up.

He has to rescue her, to pull her out, and once he has, he’s furious with her, for putting herself in such danger, for frightening him that way, and she doesn’t understand his reaction. When she asks for an explanation, he begs her to look him in the eye for five heartbeats, but she can’t, and she gets angry and yells to tell him so. The scene is so beautifully done, this frustrating development that neither wants to fully explore or realize, and the next day, Bella is so overcome with this feeling of failure that she pounds her hands raw on the closed gates, and when the Beast finds her, she demands to be released, shouting at him that she doesn’t want to be shut up here with him and her failure anymore. And he lets her go. The minute she is no longer with him of her own free will, he lets her go.

Her departure is not born out of homesickness, and he extracts no promise to return. She is free, though they don’t part well, but it’s not until Bella has returned home that she realizes she has hurt him. And it’s not until she both realizes and admits that a) she loves him and b) he loves her, too, that she also realizes why she couldn’t see into the heart of the Heartwood. Because, as she says in a truly brilliant quote, “True love never has just one face, does it? It must always have two, or it isn’t true love at all.”

She doesn’t return because she promised to; she returned because she has to right a wrong that was committed. And it wasn’t failure to return that brought destruction to the Beast; it was the departure in the first place, the failure to see him and them clearly. And when she finds him as if dead, she looks him full in the face and begs him to open his eyes and see her clearly, for five heartbeats and more. And he does, and the curse is broken.

I really don’t know why I remembered this book as being merely “okay.” I think Dokey handled this story brilliantly. Let’s to the checklist.

Strong protagonist? Yes. She’s feisty and honest and stubborn, and she grows a lot over the course of the story, which is always to be hoped for.

Backstory for the prince? Yes, although this is one place where I think things could have been tied together a little stronger. I was expecting the prince’s (well, he’s not a prince in this version, but go with it) crime to be tied into the Heartwood Tree – I thought it would have been fitting if he’d tried to take a branch from it. Instead, he shot a doe who had a fawn, which is a little weak to me for such a punishment, but eh. It’s passable, I suppose.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? The way this version handled the departure and return negates this point in the first place.

Relationship establishment? Brilliantly done. I love the frustration between the two because it feels so real and not fairy-tale-like at all. There’s an attraction, a connection, that neither one really understands or wants to acknowledge because they don’t think it should be there. She’s a prisoner, there just to carve a piece of wood. She’s overly opinionated, he’s infuriatingly close-mouthed. They haven’t known each other long enough to fall in love. Or so they believe, and in so believing, fight against. It’s very well done.

Message? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I’ll let this passage speak for itself: “But he is a Beast,” Maman protested. “And Dominic was once a thief,” April spoke up. Not everyone ends the same as they begin, Maman.”

I think Dokey handled this story very, very well. I applaud the changes she made, and though there were one or two confusing matters that could perhaps have been made a bit clearer, overall, a very good first adaptation for the month.