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.