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.