Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rumpelstiltskin Wrap Up

Rumpelstiltskin Wrap-Up

So, Rumpelstiltskin is really the first “problem” fairy tale we’ve looked at (yes, okay, fine, we’ve only looked at three so far, but just go with me on this one). East of the Sun is just fantastic all on its own, and Beauty and the Beast isn’t a great story, but at least it follows a basic pattern of logic and reason. But Rumpelstiltskin, as we discussed at the beginning of the month and really every week since, is a much more problematic story. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t well explained. There’s really very little rhyme and reason. And so, of course, it’s fascinating to me to see how authors handle it in adaptation.

As a reminder, this month, we read:

Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn

On the first hand, we’ve got Spinners, which, all in all, really did take a pretty straightforward approach. Yes, Rumpel got his backstory, and was made slightly more complex by the twist of being the miller’s daughter’s real father, but really, this novel stuck pretty close to the original. We had the three nights to spin straw into gold, we had Rumpel striking his three deals, we had the contest to find out the name, and we had the stamping into the floor and ripping his leg off death at the end.

And really, to me, that was Spinners’ biggest weakness. Napoli and Tchen deviated a bit from the original tale, but not really enough. It’s almost like they were afraid to go too far away from the familiar details. But that becomes a problem when the familiar details just plain don’t make sense. This month, this book was definitely the weakest offering, and that’s really why.

In choosing to take the narrative in completely different directions, adaptations like A Curse Dark as Gold and The Crimson Thread really opened themselves up to brand new possibilities. In A Curse Dark as Gold, Bunce made a bold move and pitched a lot of those common elements – straw was spun to gold only once, there was no king in sight, and the name “Rumpelstiltskin” was never offered. Instead, this story and its essential elements were planted in a more realistic world (for all that we had ghosts and lost souls and curses presented as a matter of fact), and that made the story not only more relatable, but also more meaningful.

The same holds true with The Crimson Thread, which was even more of a departure from the original. Rumpel is a love interest, the firstborn child threat was never a serious deal, and the “miller’s daughter” leaves the “king” in the end – and we applaud that decision because in this day and age, it’s hard to root for a girl who agrees to marry the man who threatened to kill her if she didn’t live up to her father’s clearly impossible boasts. A Curse Dark as Gold and The Crimson Thread succeeded as adaptations because they made the choice to depart from the original. At the very least, think of them what you will, they were miles more successful as adaptations than Spinners was.

And then there’s The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, whose entire point is to deviate from the original plot. I’ve already talked about how brilliant I find this book, and this is the reason why. Because it’s detrimental when we get so attached to stories that we refuse to see anything bad about them. When our nostalgia for the familiar keeps us from recognizing the very real issues that whatever is familiar might have.

Rumpelstiltskin, as a fairy tale, is a highly problematic story, and it won’t be the only one that we look at this year. Now, Rumpelstiltskin also doesn’t have quite the level of nostalgia attached to it that some of the others do (likely due largely to the fact that Disney has yet to tackle this one (not counting ABC’s Once Upon a Time and the brilliant Robert Carlyle, of course)), but we will talk in the coming months about more of these problematic stories – Sleeping Beauty jumps immediately to mind – and once we do, I know we’ll be fighting that nostalgia factor, so I want to state this reminder, for you all as well as for myself:

If we sacrifice objectivity for nostalgia, we do ourselves and our stories a disservice. Rumpelstiltskin and its adaptations have shown us that this month. The strongest offerings are those that dared to take the story in a new and different and divergent direction. That says a lot.

So! The individual novels and their rankings:

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde gets top ranking of the four for me, with a Strongly Recommended. Its snark and meta-ness and the fact that Vande Velde did exactly what I’ve been doing won it the spot. The six stories are brilliantly done, and yet all so very different, but all making the same points.

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce also gets a ranking of Strongly Recommended. I really enjoy the grittiness of this novel and how much is constantly at stake. With its stubbornly infuriating protagonist and excellently well rounded cast of characters, it’s well worth the read.

The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn ranks third, with a Recommended ranking. I enjoyed the story a lot, but it did suffer some pacing issues (and, yes, now that they’ve been pointed out to be, some pretty unfortunately historical inaccuracies). It’s a great story with a great premise, just not quite as well executed as the other two.

Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen falls last, with a Not Recommended ranking. It hurts me to assign it, because so much of the book was good, but the ending just killed it for me. It could have been so much more.

Other Notable Novels: None, really! Between Heidi and I, we pretty much exhausted the adaptations of Rumpelstiltskin. Want a great new take on his character? Watch Once Upon a Time and the brilliant Robert Carlyle! :)

Thanks for reading along this month!

August’s fairy tale: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn

The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: The year is 1880 and Bertie, having just arrived in New York with her family, is grateful to be given work as a seamstress in the home of textile tycoon J.P. Wellington. When the Wellington family fortune is threatened, Bertie’s father boasts that Bertie will save the business, that she is so skillful she can “practically spin straw into gold.” Amazingly, in the course of one night, Bertie creates exquisite evening gowns – with the help of Ray Stalls, a man from her tenement who uses an old spinning wheel to create dresses that are woven with crimson thread and look as though they are spin with real gold. Indebted to Ray, Bertie asks how she can repay him. When Ray asks for her firstborn child, Bertie agrees, never dreaming that he is serious . . .

Type of adaptation: Historical recontextualization

So, that summary up there is more than a bit misleading. I took it straight from the back of the book – oh, what book jackets will say to draw us in. It’s not that anything they say is wrong, necessarily, but they do make it sound like the story is based a whole lot more closely on the original fairy tale than it is.

Don’t get me wrong – this adaptation is quite good. But just like A Curse Dark as Gold, it deviates from the original a fairly significant amount. Weyn has a bit of a gift for setting fairy tales in historical contexts and making it work really, really well.

For this retelling, we fix on American, specifically New York City, in the 1880s, when Irish immigration was hitting its peak. Famine and sickness had devastated Ireland, and America was the Land of Promise, so the Irish headed here in droves.

Enter our protagonist, Bridget O’Malley. (And yes, I know some of you are saying, wait a minute, Cassie. That summary says the protagonist’s name is Bertie. Yes, I know. I’m getting to that. Patience). Bridget is sixteen, and has just immigrated to America with her family (father, three brothers, and a three-year-old sister). Her father Paddy swears that this will be the place where all their dreams come true, but Bridget sees the harsh reality her father seems to ignore – they are poor, there is not enough work, and they’ve been thrust head first into a strange new land and new culture that they do not understand.

On her very first day, Bridget goes to market to buy food with the few pennies that they have, and on her way, she passes a vendor selling cloth and thread. She spies a spool of beautiful crimson thread, and asks the price, even though she knows there is no way she can afford it. But before she has time to turn away, a man walks up and pays for a spool, which he then gives to Bridget. She stammers that she cannot accept such a gift, but he merely says that someday, she will repay him. And he disappears.

This, of course, is our Rumpelstiltskin character, and oh, how different from the original, even already! She isn’t crying, she isn’t in trouble, and she certainly doesn’t ask for his help. And yet, he buys her this thread, and asks nothing in return – yet.

One of the things Weyn does to make this story her own is to abandon the firm rule of three visits from Rumpel. Oh, to be sure, there are three major time when this Rumpel character helps Bridget, but in between, in this version, Bridget encounters this man who calls himself Ray Stalls any number of times, and each time, he performs some small kindness. Buying the thread, offering her little sister a peppermint, pointing them in the direction of water. They are drawn together, time and again, like destiny or fate is at play. Except, of course, that practical, pragmatic Bridget doesn’t believe that at all.

Bridget gets a job sewing vests in a sweatshop while her father and the two oldest boys work in a factory, leaving her eleven-year-old brother to look after the toddler. Bridget spends nearly every penny she gets on food, and it’s still barely enough to feed six. Bridget struggles to make ends meet while her father walks about with his head in the clouds, dreaming up ways to get that American promise for himself.

Eventually, Bridget’s father gets himself into trouble with the foreman at the factory. He starts a brawl, and of course the boys join in. That’s when Paddy reveals his new plan to the family – they will abandon the names that mark them so clearly as Irish and become fully American. Patrick O’Malley becomes Rick Miller, a strong, American sounding name. Paddy does this for two reasons. One, he feels it will help them find better work. Two, the police are after them for starting a riot.

And the police would have caught them, too, if not for Ray Stalls’ next act of kindness. The police all but corner Bridget and her family in a tavern. Ray sees what is happening and puts on the act of a drunk, literally spilling money all over the bar. He plays on the greed of the police officers, and gives Bridget and her family a chance to escape.

By lying through his teeth and spinning one tall tale after another, Paddy manages to get himself a job as Rick Miller, managing the stables and carriages for the Wellingtons, a very rich family in the textile trade. But he doesn’t stop there. Hearing that they are looking for a new seamstress, he tells the housekeeper that his daughter, Bertie Miller is the beast seamstress American has ever seen. She can do things with a needle and thread that have never been done before! Why, she could spin straw into gold, she’s so good!

His boasting and his tales get Bridget an interview, and she gets the job. Though I do appreciate that the housekeeper sees right through Paddy’s tales, recognizing Bridget’s embarrassment at the whole situation, and deciding to give the girl a chance for her own sake, rather than her father’s. I like this touch because it addresses the whole idea that anyone believed the miller’s tales in the first place without bothering to talk to the daughter at all.

Bridget is incredibly grateful for her new opportunity, both because she is able to learn so much working in this rich and fancy household, but also because young James Wellington likes to come visit her and flirt. It’s at this point in the story that an interesting shift happens – the narration stops referring to the girl as “Bridget” and begins to call her “Bertie”. Bridget/Bertie has consciously shifted her identity to fit in with the one her father crafted for her, and it’s significant.

And yet, she is still that same pragmatic Bridget. She doesn’t lose her head. Where other girls might dream of marrying the rich heir to a fortune, Bertie knows it will never happen. So she allows him to flirt and treasures those moments, but she never allows herself to expect anything to come of them. She has her hands full worrying over Eileen and Liam and whether or not her father’s continued schemes are going to tear her family apart.

And then Eileen, Bertie’s little sister who Bertie has practically raised, falls ill, seriously ill, and Bertie doesn’t have the time or the means to care for her. It’s diptheria, and there is no money for a doctor.

Once again, it’s Ray Stalls to the rescue. He takes the girl to a doctor, pays for the medicine and the care, and asks nothing in return save the chance to get to know Bertie a little better. She introduces herself as Bertie Miller, and he introduces himself as Ray Stalls, and they both know that the other is not being honest about the name, but they look past that.

I love the juxtaposition here of the relationship between Bertie and Ray and the relationship between Bertie and James. Bertie and Ray lie about their names, but they are honest about their histories and their circumstances and their character. Their friendship is built on what is real, whereas Bertie and James build theirs up on lies and flirtation and nothing of substance. And yet, James is the one Bertie is drawn to because despite all Ray has done for her, James is the one she thinks of as her possible salvation. It’s the repeated idea of dreams versus reality, only here, Bertie is on the wrong side.

And then we get to the spinning straw into gold part. James, proving himself to be a very poor businessman, orders the absolute wrong kind of fabric for the new orders. Everyone wants Asian flavors, bright colors, rich silks, and he’s gone and gotten dark blue and green and black fabric that no one will want. Paddy overhears old JP Wellington raking his son over the coals, and decides that this would be a grand time to step in and promote his daughter some more. Before Bertie can stop him, Paddy has stepped forward to claim that Bertie can take the dark cloth and turn it into exactly what the ladies will want, and that she can do it in a single night.

Tell you what, if I was Bertie, I think I would have killed him on the spot. JP Wellington agrees to give her the chance to prove herself. If she succeeds, she’ll be rewarded. If she fails, she and her father are fired.

So, she’s a little bit desperate. And enter Ray Stalls. She explains the situation to him, and he jumps into action. They lug the crates of fabric to Ray’s hidden workroom, and he sets about using the skills from his childhood to break down the dark fabric and reweave it with the gold material from the packing crates – straw into gold. Then he takes that spool of crimson thread and works it in as well. And by morning, he has created a miracle – an entirely original gown of shimmering new material. She wants to repay him, but he says they can discuss payment later.

The Wellingtons are thrilled with the result, and JP asks (demands) that she make two more dresses in slightly different styles. If she can, she’ll be made partner alongside James. If she can’t, he’ll assume the first dress was a fluke, and she and her father will be fired.

When Bertie goes to Ray to ask for help again, she is confronted with a fact that she knew to be true but didn’t want to admit – Ray has done all this for her because he’s in love with her. But she, so close to a possible future with James, and starstruck with the thought of it, turns him down. She offers him money as payment, which he rebuffs. The only payment he wants is her love in return, which she claims she cannot give him. They get into a heated argument which leads to this exchange:

“‘What else shall I pay you to make things square between us? Name your price, but it will not be me!’

He laughed bitterly, scornfully. ‘I don’t know. Why don’t I take your firstborn child?’

‘Ha!’ she cried. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’

‘What price would you have me name?’

‘Fine, then! My firstborn child it is.’”

I adore this. I absolutely adore it. And this is why I have a problem with the back cover summary. It wants you to think that Ray truly wants Bertie’s firstborn. But he doesn’t. The request wasn’t serious. Bertie’s promise wasn’t serious. It was an argument, words shouted in anger. They become important later, but in this moment, they aren’t, to either party.

Bertie insists she’ll make the second two dresses on her own, without his help. But they aren’t nearly as good, and she knows it. She works all her allotted days, but in the end, she knows her product isn’t good enough to save her. She goes to sleep the final night hoping against hope she can find a solution in the morning.

But in the morning, her dresses have disappeared, replaced by brilliant designs that could only have been made by one person – Ray. Even though she rejected him, even though they argued horribly, still he did this for her. Still, he came through and saved her one last time. I absolutely adore it.

Bertie is made partner, James proposes, and just like that, she has the best life she could imagine. James takes her and Eileen to the south, to his family home in Atlanta, and all looks as if it couldn’t be more perfect. She will marry the heir to a rich business. She will teach the company weavers how to use the packing material to weave Ray’s cloth. She will be able to care for Eileen always.

But then, slowly, the dream starts to crumble away, as we know it has to when we read this fairy tale. The marriage of the king and the miller’s daughter in the story is a loveless one, and we question it every step of the way. So, too, do we question it here, for we as readers saw James’s character for what it was long ago. And now, we only wait for Bertie to find out.

And she does. She slowly has her eyes opened to his drunkenness, his philandering, his lying and cheating and threatening. She becomes disgusted by him, just as she becomes disgusted by the mills he runs, with their child labor and dangerous machines and dreadful atmosphere. She realizes too late what she gave up, and in one dreadful moment, it all goes wrong. She catches James in a compromising position and threatens to tell his father. And before she can, James goes to JP and tells him that Bertie has been stealing money from the company. He paints a picture of her as a jealous harpy, unreasonable, unstable, and JP calls off the engagement and fires her in the same breath.

Left with nothing, she takes Eileen and leaves, trying to find a way back to New York. But on the way, she gets caught up in a mill riot, and for the first time in months, she sees Ray again. He is organizing the mill workers to strike, but things go wrong, and in the riot, Bertie loses hold of Eileen. The girl disappears, and Bertie is told when she searches desperately, that Ray has taken her.

Then their argument comes rushing back. He promised to take her firstborn child, she remembers. And though Eileen is her sister, Bertie has raised her, cared for her, and is the closest thing to a mother that Eileen has ever known. Eileen was the last thing that Bertie had. Now, she is left with nothing.

She makes it back to New York, and with nothing to lose, tries a desperate gamble. She seeks out an old friend of James who she met once, a George Rumpole, and proposes a partnership. She’ll start a dress shop if he’ll be her backer. It takes time, but slowly, so slowly, she rises from the ashes and creates a new life for herself.

And then, one night, Bertie receives word that Eileen may have been found, with a man named Rudy Stiltchen, who owns a nearby fabric shop that happens to currently be burning down. Bertie runs to the place as fast as she can, desperate to find Eileen, but the person she finds is Ray – or Rudy, as he is now being called. She starts screaming at him, hysterical, to tell her what he’s done with her sister. And it’s at this point that Ray realizes the extent of the misunderstanding.

See, he didn’t steal Eileen; he found her. Bertie was wounded in the riot, knocked out, but before that happened, she’d put Eileen in a safe corner. Ray had found her, but when he wasn’t able to locate Bertie, he took Eileen to keep her safe. Once he’s dealt with the distraction of his shop burning down, he gets the whole story out of Bertie, including why she would think he would steal her sister. When she reminds him of their argument, he is floored, completely taken aback that she took his words so seriously. He was angry, he says, but he would never have done such a thing. He helped her a fourth time because he loved her, regardless of her feelings. He disappeared for the same reason. He cared for Eileen for the same reason. And now, after everything that has happened, she is finally ready to acknowledge that she feels the same toward him.

If this novel suffers any problems, it’s some pacing issues in the latter half. Moving to Atlanta with James through that romance falling apart and the riot and losing Eileen and getting back to New York all just seemed to happen really quickly, and we weren’t give then chance to process it very well.

Also, the novel was framed, prologue and epilogue, by this idea that Bridget was descended from Irish royalty, so she was technically a princess, and her story was being set down by a faerie chronicler . . . I dunno, but it was strange and pretty unnecessary, which is why you didn’t hear about it before now.

Overall though, this is a pretty strong offering on this tale. I love that we get to see the romance with the prince fall apart, because it absolutely would have. I love the take on the promising of the firstborn child, and I’ll admit – I’m a fan of making Rumpel into the love interest under these circumstances. But let’s to the checklist, yeah?

A point? Yes, yes, a beautiful one. I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction, and Weyn does it so well. Contextualizing this story within a time period, addressing that time period’s very real and very sincere issues gives the novel an automatic point. And the message about what love truly is, in all its forms, is wonderful.

Backstory for Rumpel? Not necessarily backstory so much as a rounding out of the character, which I’m gonna count enough to give the point. We get snatches of Ray/Rudy’s history, but for me, his character and motivations are more important, and they’re there for sure.

Likeable characters? Yes! I adore Eileen, and though Bridget/Bertie made me want to smack her sometimes, she came around in the end and was a really strong character. I was definitely rooting for her. And Ray. Oh, goodness, Ray. He’s the iconic charming con man, very Anastasia Dimitri, and I love him. The side characters are fantastic as well, particularly George Rumpole, if only because once he and Ray/Rudy combine their fabric and dressmaking shops, it becomes Rumpole-Stiltchen’s, and let’s face it – that’s just brilliant.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

Hey there! Longer post today, but to be fair, I was essentially reviewing six stories! Sorry for the delay, and enjoy!

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: The story of Rumpelstiltskin has long bothered author Vivian Vande Velde. And so she set off to do what every bothered author does – write until she’s fixed the problem.

Type of Adaptation: Retellings

So, this review will be a bit different than those that have come before, because this book is not one adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin, but six. Vande Velde has written an anthology of six short stories. So we’ll look at each one individually, then the anthology as a whole.

The book starts off with a foreword by Vande Velde, and that foreword immediately got me on board with this book. Basically, Vande Velde explains why she has such a problem with Rumpelstiltskin as a story, and it helps that her issues with it are very similar to my issues. She compares the version of the story with which we’re all familiar to the final result of a game of “Telephone” – somewhere along the way, the original message got incredibly tangled. The story makes no sense.

She includes a “Rumpelstiltskin According to Vivian” in this foreword, every bit as snarky as I am in mine, so of course, I approve. She has her own list of questions: if the daughter can spin straw into gold, why is the miller so poor? Why doesn’t the daughter stop to wonder why Rumpel would need a gold ring if he can spin straw into gold? How is the poor miller able to give his child this much jewelry? Why does Rumpel constantly agree to such horrible bargains? And the big one – why was this guy singing his name to high heaven around a campfire when he’s engaged in a battle of wits about the secrecy of his name?

Vande Velde puts it best:
“What do you think your teacher would say if you handed in a story like that? I think you’d be lucky to get a D-. And that’s assuming your spelling was good. It was by asking myself these questions that I came to write these stories.”

So let’s to the stories, shall we? And we’ll look at how Vande Velde used each one to answer her own questions and address the issues she had with the original tale of Rumeplstiltskin.

“A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste”

So, first of all, each of these stories starts off with a quirky “Once upon a time” phrase – this one is “Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells.” I love this little edition because it’s snark all over the place. This is a collection born out of snark. Do I really need to tell you that I automatically approve?

Anyway, in this short story, Rumpel is a troll who really, really wants to eat a baby. This desire is what drives his every move. He desperately wants to taste baby human. Trouble is, human babies are a bit hard to come by, so he hatches this plan. And then every bit of the story, from the miller claiming his daughter can spin straw into gold to the king locking her in a room for three nights to the girl letting Rumpel spin the straw for her, is all born out of this convoluted game of Telephone that Rumpel is orchestrating.

Because he’s going to each of the three and spinning a different story. He tells the miller that maybe the king will give him some money if the miller can make the king laugh. So Rumpel suggests telling him a ridiculous story about how his daughter can spin straw into gold, because who would ever believe that? The miller agrees because Rumpel appeals to his desire to give his daughter everything she needs.

Rumpel tells the king, then, that this miller is poor and desperate, and so he’s going to tell him this crazy story, and the king should just play along, and bring the girl to the castle to “spin straw into gold,” and then the king should just give her a few pieces of gold and send her on her way. The king agrees because Rumpel appeals to his generous nature and his desire to help this poor family.

And then Rumpel tells the girl that the king has demanded she spin the straw into gold, or he’ll have her killed, and it’s no use trying to talk to him about it, because he’s really in a temper. And even though Rumpel’s account goes against the little that Siobhan knows of the king, this is a matter of life and death, so why take chances?

In the end, here, what does Rumpel in is twofold. First, earlier in the tale, we learn that Rumpel probably ate his sister-in-law at one point, and didn’t think his brother would have a problem with that. And second, he never stopped to consider that the king and Siobhan might fall in love and get married, and then one day have a conversation about exactly what happened to bring them together. Once they realize Rumpel’s game (and once his brother has come to settle his score), they’re able to trick him right back.

An improvement on the original? Absolutely. Firstly, the characters are miles better. Rumpel gets a motivation, the king isn’t a bastard, and Siobhan has a personality. By making the tale into this elaborate plan of Rumpel’s, we understand why the characters act the way they do, and yet, Rumpel still gets his comeuppance in the end.

“Straw Into Gold”

In this tale, the mill has just burned down, leaving the miller and his daughter Della destitute and desperate. (Yay, alliteration!) They have no money, and without a mill, no way to earn any. So the miller comes up with a plan. They’ll find a rich passerby and tell him that Della can spin straw into gold, and if they give the miller and Della just three gold pieces as a fee, she’ll spin as much as they like. Then, they’ll take the gold, claim that the magic has to be worked by moonlight, and run away in the night. It’s not a very good plan and it’s not a very honest plan, but Della trusts her father, so she agrees to it.

Unfortunately, predictably, things go rather badly wrong. Because the rich person the miller speaks to first is actually the king, who does many things the miller hadn’t expected: he asks questions, he promises payment only after the deed is done, he takes the girl to his palace to spin, and a horrible punishment awaits if it turns out they’ve tried to swindle the king. Needless to say, the plan is in complete disarray after this, and Della needs to think on her feet.

Unfortunately, locked in a tower room full of straw, there aren’t a whole lot of options, so it’s looking like she’s gonna get her head chopped off. But what Della doesn’t know is that her world lies adjacent to another world, and if you step sideways in a certain way, you can travel between the two. Rumpel, who is a creature from this other world, does just that when he hears Della crying.

In this tale, Rumpel is a kind-hearted creature who wants to help. So he and Della hatch a plan. While she throws all the straw out the window, he’ll bring gold back from his world. Of course, what he is able to bring is gold cups and plates and jewelry, but Della guesses (rightly so) that the king is so greedy for gold, he won’t question what form it’s in. For helping her, Della offers Rumpel her ring. The second night, she gives him the payment of gold that the king gave her for spinning the first night.

By the third night, Rumpel’s starting to get a little peeved with Della. Not because she keeps asking him to help her out, but because she’s starting to defend the king, and even after everything he’s done, she’s still planning on marrying him. But, because he is kind hearted and likes Della, when she says she has nothing to offer him for his help, he agrees to help her for nothing, but he tells her that once she marries the king, she will see him no more.

Della desperately wants to believe that the king loves her in some small measure, but as their marriage goes on, that looks less and less likely. And when her first child is a girl rather than a boy, the king wants nothing to do with the baby, which breaks Della’s heart. Her tears once more summon Rumpel, who can’t stay away from Della’s sadness. She believes that if the king thought his daughter was in danger, he’d come to love her. Rumpel doesn’t agree, but he helps Della come up with another plan.

She tells the king then that she wasn’t the one who spun the gold – a nasty little elf did, and he’s demanded her firstborn child as payment, unless they can guess his name (which Della totally knows, by the way). The king isn’t terribly troubled, sending others to compile his list for him. Della and Rumpel arrange for a messenger to “stumble across” Rumpel in the woods, singing his name for all to hear. The messenger, hilariously, gets it wrong. But when Della tells the king that they think they’ve found the name, and he doesn’t even blink or care at all, she makes her decision. She asks Rumpel to take her and her daughter with him through to his world, and there, they will live happily ever after.

An improvement on the original? Definitely. What I love about this version is that Della grows. She wants to love the king, and she wants him to love her, but when it becomes clear that he doesn’t and never will, she learns to see truly the love that was always there, and that’s what she follows. The king is still a bastard in this version, but Della is wonderful, and Rumpelstiltskin is probably my favorite version of him in this collection.

“The Domovoi”

So far, we’ve had Rumpel as the negative character and the king as the negative character, but here we head in a different direction: the daughter as the negative character. This story plays on Russian folklore of brownies or kobolds who watch over and protect households. Rumpel is one of these, a domovoi who watches over the royal household and makes sure everyone is happy.  So when he hears wailing and sobbing coming from one of the rooms, he goes to fix it.

That’s where he meets Katya, the miller’s daughter, a spoiled, selfish girl who doesn’t listen or think about anyone other than herself. Now, true enough, her father is the one who landed her here. He spent a night drinking with the king, and when they were both fall-down drunk, the miller said his daughter could spin straw into gold, and the king said, then send her to me to do just that. Katya is convinced that he will kill her if she doesn’t. Rumpel thinks once the king’s had some tea for his hangover, he’ll let her go, but Katya insists on her version of things.

So, in an effort to make her happy, Rumpel offers to spin the straw for her. Instead of being grateful, though, Katya’s annoyed that he didn’t mention it before now. She gives him a gold ring (which Rumpel didn’t ask for and doesn’t want), but says he won’t get any more out of her. But she’s finally happy, so his job is done.

Until he hears her cries the next night. She forces her necklace on him and demands that he spin. And on the third night, she wails because he’s “taken” everything she has of value, so what can she use to buy her life from him this time? Not listening to his protestations that he’ll do it for no charge, she says she’ll give him her firstborn. Rumpel trusts that by the time she’s actually married and has a kid, she’ll have forgotten this promise.

And it would have worked, except that the nursemaid set out a bowl of cream for the domovoi once the prince is born, and then Katya remembers, and she tells the king the story we all know so well. The king says that if they know his name, they can cast him out. Katya should know his name, but she wasn’t paying attention, so Rumpel knows he’ll have to help. He starts using the cream to write his name on the floor, but Katya insists he’s come to steal the baby, so they start shouting names, and eventually, Rumpel just pretends they got it right, burrows into the ground, and leaves, exasperated, finally coming to the conclusion that some people just aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy.

Improvement on the original? Yes. It’s not my favorite of the six, but I do love the way it’s narrated. Rumpel’s inner monologue is hilarious in this one. He’s really the only likeable character, but I do enjoy the spin put on the miller’s daughter here.

“Papa Rumpelstiltskin”

The character of Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear in this short story at all, and that’s one of the things that makes it my favorite – not because I don’t like Rumpel, but because the way that he was written out and written around in this version is absolutely brilliant.

Otto is the miller, and he is ridiculously proud of his daughter. Constantly exaggerating, he brags to everyone he meets about the things that Christina can do, how clever she is, how talented. Now, most people have gotten used to this, and smile and nod and know to take what he says for the hyperbole it is, but one day, he brags to the wrong person. He tells the king that his daughter is so talented a spinner that she could spin straw into gold.

Well, the king doesn’t quite hear the claim for what it is, and he orders Christina to be brought to him, and it’s not until she’s dragged before the king that she realizes what her father has done, and rather than admit his tendency to brag to the king (who either wouldn’t listen or would have Otto killed for lying), she formulates another plan. She tells her father to take her mother’s gold necklace to the blacksmith, to have it melted down and formed into gold wire. This, he is to smuggle in to her with her spinning wheel. That night, she throws all the straw out the window, where her father collects it in his wagon and carts it away.

The next morning, she presents the king with a single spool of gold wire, and when he protests that she had a room full of straw, she points out that wool always shrinks when spun, and the same is true for gold. Needless to say, the king is upset at being robbed of his gold, and to protect his daughter, the miller blurts out that his daughter can do much better given more material.

Desperate to make amends, Otto sells all their clothing and furniture, until he has enough gold to make two spools of wire. Again, he smuggles this in to Christina, and she throws the straw out the window once more. The next morning, she hands over the two spools, but tells the king that she really would like to go home. He says one more night, and then he’ll marry her. Otto, showing remarkable foresight, thought the king might want more gold, and so when he sold all their belongings, he also sold the mill, and has three more spools of wire for Christina.

Unfortunately, Christina knows that unless she comes up with a new plan, this cycle will never end until she fails to come up with gold, and the king kills her. So, in the morning, when the doors are open, Christina begins to sob. She says that a little man came to her in the night, the man who taught her to spin gold, that he is demanded the future royal child now that she is to marry the king. The king vows this will never happen, schedules the wedding, and takes Christina away. Otto doesn’t know if Christina has a plan, so he does his best to come up with one.

His plan is this: to roll about in the ashes of his mill, show up at the palace, pretend to be Christina’s rumored little man, demand the child, and get Christina away. There are many holes in this plan, and Otto trips through all of them. First of all, he’s easily recognizable as Christina’s father. Second of all, he can’t demand a child that doesn’t exist yet. Third of all, he’s not the best actor in the world. Luckily, his hijinks do serve to distract the king long enough for him and Christina to jump out the window into a waiting boat on the river and get away. Christina deals her father a helpful lesson in avoiding exaggeration, and they head out to a new kingdom.

Improvement on the original? Like I said, this one’s my favorite. Writing out Rumpel gives us a truly badass heroine. I love Christina, her cleverness, her quick-thinking, her love and exasperation for her father. I like Otto, too, dumb as he is. He loves his daughter, and he means well, and he learns his lesson in the end. This one’s brilliant.

“Ms. Rumpelstiltskin”

In this story, Rumpel is actually a female, a girl who was plain as a child, homely as a teenage, and just plain ugly as an adult. She desperately wants a child, but no man would have her, and gradually, she grew too old to have a baby of her own. Now she lives alone and lonely, thought a witch by those who live around her.

Well, one day, Rumpel happens to see her next door neighbor, the miller’s daughter, get taken away by the king’s soldiers. Determined to see if she can help, she follows the carriage, and climbs the tower to where Luella is being kept. When she appears through the window, Luella mistakes Rumpel for a little man, but eventually explains how she came to be locked in a tower room full of straw. Rumpel recognizes Luella for what she is – a beautiful girl who has always gotten her own way, but she decides to help the girl. For payment.

The next night, Rumpel has a feeling the king will have Luella in a tower again, and sure enough, the lights are on in the room, and when Rumpel climbs to the tower room, she finds Luella just sitting and waiting for Rumpel to appear. Again, Rumpel spins. And the third night, same deal. By then Luella is so confident that Rumpel will appear to get her out of trouble that she doesn’t even worry. Rumpel, fed up with this nonsense, demands Luella’s firstborn as payment. She wants a child, and Luella needs to be taught a lesson. Luella consents, saying that first children are always brats anyway.

And when by-then Queen Luella has her first child, Rumpel is there to demand it. However, her heart is softened when the king offers anything, even his life, in place of his child. She decides to ask the couple a riddle. Thinking of something they couldn’t possibly know, she finally settles on asking them to give her name, figuring that since they can’t even look closely enough at her to realize she’s not a man, they certainly won’t look close enough to recognize her.

Unfortunately, the plan is thwarted when, after four of five guesses have been used, the miller walks in, takes one look at her, and says, “Say, isn’t that our old neighbor Rumpelstiltskin?” Hee. Anyway, they guess her name, and she leaves in disgust, and a few years down the road, we’re told, eventually becomes the witch from Rapunzel.

Improvement on the original? Yup. Again, I like the playing with the idea that the miller’s daughter isn’t all goodness and light, but here I like that she can be spoiled and self-absorbed without being unpleasant. Same for the king. And I like that this story is really from Rumpel’s perspective. Plus, having her also serve as Mother Gothel in the future? Brilliant.

“As Good As Gold”

Another retelling without a Rumpelstiltskin, this final story focuses on the as-of-yet neglected character – the king. King Gregory is a good sort, invested and interested in his subjects, and every so often, he likes to go among them and appreciate the work they do and the lives they lead. On one such day, he is praising a local smith when the miller butts in, clamoring for attention. The king is polite and encouraging, but a bit too much so, because somehow, by the end of the conversation, he’s told the boasting miller that he’d love to meet his daughter someday.

And so, who should turn up at the palace that evening but the miller’s daughter Carleen, spinning wheel in tow, because she was ordered there by King Gregory to show how she could spin straw into gold. The King is shocked at this, because he knows he ordered no such thing. But he can’t very well turn her out in the middle of the night, so reluctantly, he invites her to stay.

The next morning, he is greatly surprised to be summoned to her room, so she can show him the result of her night of forced work – a golden handle she “spun” that suspiciously matches similar handles on the dresser in her room. The king is very confused by this, but not wanting to be a poor host, congratulates her on her achievement. The weather prohibits him from sending her home, so he is forced to invite her to stay another night.

But the next morning, the same thing happens. This time, she presents him with a golden doorknob, and by now, there is a suspicious amount of straw peeking out of various places in the room. Again, massively confused by the girl’s behavior, Gregory thanks her for her spinning, but she doesn’t let him get out that she needn’t continue.

The next morning, she presents him with golden buttons and the news that they must be married immediately, on instructions from the little man who came to her room the past three nights to spin the straw to save her. If they don’t marry, his anger will be horrible.

Gregory has begun to realize that without drastic measures, he’s never going to get rid of this girl. So he hatches an ingenious plan – he plays along. He starts asking her questions about the little man, and tells her not to worry – he knows how to get her out of the man’s trap. All they have to do is discover the man’s secret name. So he goes to the window, where he has just seen the creature, and starts shouting at him, guessing names. In reality, he’s talking to his captain of the guard, a Captain Rumpelstiltskin, who is very confused by the conversation he’s having with his king.

That taken care of, Gregory consents to marry Carleen, careful to drop lots of hints about inviting the single and far, far wealthier King Norvin from a neighboring country. His plot works like a charm, and Carleen soon escapes to woo and wed King Norvin with her schemes of spinning gold.

Improvement on the original? Yes. This one made me laugh a lot, at its sheer ridiculousness, but also at the cleverness of the king. I like turning him into the protagonist, especially when he’s so often just a bastard.

So! Now that we’ve looked at all six stories, let’s look at the anthology as a whole, with our checklist.

A point? Oh, definitely, and outlined so very beautifully in Vande Valde’s forward. She wanted to explore Rumpelstiltskin and answer all those pesky questions and plotholes and other things that never made sense. And she does so beautifully. Six lovely little stories, all improvements on the original, all quirky and funny and wonderfully done. Her point came across beautifully.

Backstory for Rumpel and Likeable Characters I’m rolling into one here, and as we’ve already discussed, yes. My biggest appreciation with this anthology is that Vande Velde gives each of the four main players a story in which to shine. But she also plays with the different possible sides of each character. We have boasting millers and good-hearted millers and unimportant millers. We have generous kings, kind kings, and bastardly kings. We have clever daughters and idiotic daughters and conniving daughters. And we have kindly Rumpels, dastardly Rumpels, and non-existent Rumpels. I love it. I love the variety, I love the dimension, and I love the sheer range of possibilities Vande Velde explored.

A definite recommendation, and I really hope Vande Velde takes it upon her to do several of these anthologies with many other fairy tales, because you can be sure that I will read them all.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Guest Post: Straw Into Gold with Heidi!

Hey there, folks! So, my review of The Rumpelstiltskin Problem is coming -- look for it Monday -- but it's been a crazy week, and so I'm gonna turn this Friday over to my good friend Heidi, who will likely be writing a few guest posts for me in the months to come. So over to Heidi!

Hello, everyone. Heidi, here. Cassie asked me to review Straw into Gold by Gary D. Schmidt, so here goes!

Target Audience: Junior High

Summary: Tousle's life depends on the answer to a riddle. If he doesn't solve it in seven days, he faces execution. Only one person possesses the answer - the banished queen. And only one person can help Tousle on his quest - a cruelly blinded boy named Innes. But during their dangerous quest, the boys stumble upon another, even more mystifying riddle: What happened to the young prince who was taken away so long ago by a magical little man who could spin straw into gold?

Type of Adaptation: Expansion

I found this story entertaining, and there was definitely a point where I couldn't put it down. But I also found the novel lacking in a few key areas that keep me from recommending it. But let’s start with explaining the story.

The novel opens with the traditional tale of Rumpelstiltskin, but with one small change. The queen does not learn the man's name, and Rumpelstiltskin takes her child. The rest of the story is told from the point of view of Tousle, a young boy living with his father. At the beginning of the story, Tousle is excited because he is finally going to see the city and the king. Before this day, he has never left the cottage where he lives.

 By the second page of Tousle's narrative, the reader knows something is not right. Tousle's father (called "Da") can perform magic. Our first instance of this is a set of buckets lining up at a wave of Da's hand. Later, Tousle asks for an image of the queen, and Da gives him a vision of her riding. It becomes obvious Da is Rumpelstikskin and we have a suspicion that Tousle is the queen's son.

And I like that we get this up front. The mystery of the story is not who Tousle is, but what purpose Da has for Tousle. Why is Tousle getting to see the king today? Why did Da want to take the queen’s son in the first place? Da has a very clear plan and the reader is left wondering what it is.

One thing that's done well is the relationship between Da and Tousle. They are very clearly father and son. We get a lot of their constant yet loving teasing of each other as they journey to the city. Rumpelstiltskin is traditionally thought of being very cruel and manipulative, and it's nice to see him here as loving and caring. Once at the procession, Da tries to tell Tousle something important about things being set in motion, but Tousle is too excited to listen.

The rebels against Lord Beryn (who the procession is for) are marched along, and Tousle's attention is caught by a blind boy whose eyes have been obviously slashed with a blade. The king asks the people who would beg for the rebels’ lives. The queen answers him, and Tousle, who feels as though the blind boy is looking at him, steps forward to plead as well.

The king isn't happy about this. He orders the queen away to Saint Eynsham Abbey, saying that she has no part in this. But to Tousle, he gives a riddle: what fills a hand more than a skein of gold? He says that if Tousle can answer the riddle within seven days, the rebels will be set free. If he cannot answer the riddle, then he and the rebels will die.

One thing that bugs me a little is we are never told what the rebels actually did. Were they peacefully protesting? Did they storm a building? What exactly were they rebelling against, other than Lord Beryn? We aren’t told, and for the purposes of the story, it’s not important. But it would add a little more to our perception of Lord Beryn and the rebels if we knew.

Lord Beryn is angered by the giving of the riddle. The other lords find the whole situation funny and offer Tousle a “suitable companion” by presenting him with the blind boy, named Innes. No one else is allowed to help Tousle under pain of death.

Throughout all of this, Tousle is looking around for Da, but he does not appear. Despite the king’s warning, Tousle and Innes get a lot of help. First they meet a merchant woman who used to be a nursemaid at the castle, and she tells them that only the queen can tell them the answer to the riddle.

At this point, I really wish the queen never appeared at the beginning of the story. She doesn't serve much of a purpose except to be at Tousle's side one moment and then be half way across the world the next. It would have been much more exciting and interesting if Tousle had never met the queen. There'd be a sense of suspense as he is traveling to the Abbey to meet her. But instead it's just annoying that he has to travel all this way for something he could have gotten in a matter of seconds if only time had worked out differently. It’s like the queen was banished just so Tousle had to journey to get her.

Next the boys meet the miller and his wife, who turn out to be the parents of the queen. The miller’s wife tells Tousle the answer to the riddle is two skeins of gold, but she also says that unless Tousle can offer a skein of gold for each rebel, the king will never set them free.

Tousle and Innes move onward to find a cottage that was obviously created by Da, but he never shows himself. It surprises me how little Tousle spends wondering why Da has abandoned him. It also surprises me sometimes at how Tousle and Innes speak and act. Maybe it’s just how they have been brought up, but it did distract me when they didn’t behave the way I thought 11 year olds would.

On the fourth day, Innes and Tousle make it to the queen. She tells them she knows the answer to the riddle, but that she will journey with them to tell it to the king herself. At this point Lord Beryn appears and demands Tousle be turned over to him (he does not want Tousle to answer the riddle). It is here that we learn Innes is actually the queen’s son, and that Innes’ blinding occurred by Lord Beryn so Innes couldn’t be identified by his eyes (which matched the king’s unusually pale ones).

We also learn that the king banished the queen to the Abbey, not as punishment for losing her son (the king invites her to the city every once in a while) but to protect her from the Great Lords, who refuse to acknowledge a miller’s daughter as king, nor her son as the king’s heir. The queen refuses to hand Tousle over, and Beryn will not shed blood in the Abbey, so he has his men surround the camp so the queen and the boys cannot leave. Of course, the queen and the boys find a way to escape.

Eventually, the queen and the boys make it to the king on the last day. But Beryn has beaten them there, and he tells the king to denounce the queen. But the king pushes forward and asks for the answer to the riddle. Tousle tells him that the answer is "another hand," and the queen reaches out her own hand for the king to take, which he does.

I wish the story explained more about the struggle going on inside the king. On one hand, it appears he deeply loves the queen and has only banished her to protect her. On the other hand, we're told that the king literally doesn't know the answer to the riddle and is desperately seeking an answer, meaning that he doesn't know there's something out there more valuable than gold. But when the queen enters the castle she mentions how there's isn't any gold to be found inside and that before she was banished gold had been everywhere.

So, it appears the king was making huge progress in overcoming his greed, and yet it also appears that he found himself trapped and unable to overcome it. We're only given slight information (and I mean very miniscule) on how much influence or control the Beryn and other lords have on him. I felt the ending could have been much more meaningful if we could fully understand how difficult it had been for the king to take the queen's hand. As it is, he just places his hand there, or rather she just places her hand in his and that's the end of it. This is supposed to be some great life-changing moment, but we don't know enough about the king's struggle to fully understand its significance.

In any case, Beryn is furious the king won't reject the queen and his son. He attacks Innes, but Tousle takes the blow, and the king finishes Beryn off. Time passes for Tousle to heal of his wound and the royal family to grow into having one another. Eventually Da appears and explains that he had taken Innes to protect him. He had placed Innes with a family who had agreed to take him in, but Lord Beryn discovered Innes, killed his foster parents and blinded the boy. Da had returned to find Innes, but he only found Tousle, an infant left in the ruins of the cottage that had belonged to the family.

At this point, Tousle has a choice to make. The king and queen have offered their home to him, and he is welcome to stay. But Tousle decides to stay with his Da, who weeps for joy, and the two ride off together.
As I mentioned before, I wouldn't recommend this novel. It wasn't bad, and I can't exactly say that it wasn't good, but for me it missed the mark. If someone told me they were going to read this, I wouldn’t discourage them from doing so, but I wouldn't say "oh, you should definitely read this book!" And the major reason for that is how Schmidt handles his characters.

One character I have yet to mention is the king’s Grip, a black-clad knight who Tousle describes as fear itself. The boys are running from the Grip through out most of the story. Turns out that the king has ordered the Grip to guard the boys from Lord Beryn, and Lord Beryn has ordered the Grip to kill the boys. However, the Grip is hunting the boys for himself because he wants to find Da and learn the secret of spinning straw into gold.

The Grip is a rather useless character. His only purpose seems to be to provide a sense of fear for the boys while they travel until Beryn is revealed as the big bad of the story. Despite the Grip's threats and scariness, he never actually gives someone so much as a paper cut. He threatens over and over to kill the boys, even though we know he isn't going to. It's as though he just likes harassing people. The worst he does is burn a few buildings and twist Tousle's arm a lot. Eventually, he gets Tousle to himself. Da creates a new cottage, which the Grip goes into and finds a spinning wheel. The Grip sits down to it and spins straw into gold. His greed is so great that he can't stop spinning, and Tousle simply walks away.

As I said, his character doesn’t do much of anything for the story. His purpose to be a threat, but with his refusal to hurt the boys, that purpose is destroyed. We get the message from him that greed is bad, but I think that message was supposed to play out more strongly for the king, which also doesn’t work. For the queen to simply walk up to the king and take his hand and have all be well, you wonder why she didn't just do it at the beginning of the story and have it be done with.

And many of the other characters in the book are treated the same way. They each have a deeper purpose, but ultimately this purpose doesn’t play out, leaving the characters flat and only useful as tools for Tousle and Innes to use. This prevents the novel from reach “good book” status. With the lack of threat from the Grip or Beryn (until the very end) and the lack of insight into the king’s or anyone else’s struggle, good doesn't triumph over evil in the end because we don't get any real sense of that struggle going on. It’s more about Tousle journeying to get the queen and bring her back, which in and of itself isn’t very interesting and again is annoying because the queen was with Tousle in the beginning of the book.

But, let’s take a step back and look at Cassie’s checklist.

A moral for the story? There’s a few. Design plays a big role in the book. Basically, God has a purpose and a plan. The story also touches on everyone having a gift; everyone is special in their own way. And that no one is ever really alone. Tousle misses Da and he is jealous of Innes for having a mother, but ultimately, Tousle does have Innes and a load of other people who love him. But the main moral of the story is that love is worth more than greed, hence the solving of the riddle.

Motivation for Rumpelstiltskin? He knows the king is greedy and of the control the other Lords have over him, so Rumpelstiltskin is protecting both the queen (by spinning the straw into gold) and her child (by taking the child away).

More likable characters? It’s hard to not to like two eleven-year-old boys, especially as underdogs. Rumple is eccentric but loving. The king is greedy but he also loves the queen. The miller is still a selfish idiot at the beginning, but he learns his lesson. And the people who help the boys along the way are all wonderful.

So check, check, and check. With all those points in mind, this is a good expansion on the original tale. But what makes it a good book for children (the focus on the boys) also weakens the depth and strength of the overall story arch. With the ultimate message being that love is worth more than greed, and this transition being played out with the king, we really need insight into the king’s struggle to make that message and the journey of coming to that message come out strong. And that’s where the story fails. I’m sure children in the intended age group but will love it, but older audiences will likely find it lacking, as I did.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C Bunce

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C Bunce

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Charlotte Miller’s father has died, and left her struggling under a crushing debt she didn’t know existed. If she can’t pay back her father’s mysterious loan, she’ll lose the mill that’s been in her family for five generations, and her tiny town will lose its major source of income. Charlotte is determined to raise the money, but when hardship after accident after disaster devastates her attempts, the old whispers of the curse of Stirwater Mill crop up again. Three times desperate, Charlotte makes deals with a mysterious man who calls himself Jack Spinner; and three times, he delivers. But in the end, he demands a terrible price, and if Charlotte cannot uncover who he truly is and how her family is tied up in his business, she’ll lose everything.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

When faced with a fairy tale as well known and problematic as Rumpelstiltskin, the clever adaptor will boil the story down to its bear bones, find its essential pieces, and rebuild from there. This is precisely what Bunce has done, and though, in her novel, straw is spun to gold just once, there isn’t a king to be found, and the name “Rumpelstiltskin” is never spoken, A Curse Dark as Gold remains a truly masterful retelling of this tale.

The novel begins with the declaration that the miller has died, and so right from the start, we know this story is going to play out a bit differently than the version we’re used to. The miller has died, leaving behind two daughters – our narrator Charlotte and her little sister Rosie – and a wool mill that is the town of Shearing’s livelihood. She’s young and she’s a woman, and so no one outside the sleepy little town thinks she can run the mill for herself. And it’s interesting to note that choice of mill – it’s not a mill for making flour, it’s a mill for making cloth, which really fits this story better. Within days of her father’s death, the vultures descend, in the form of larger mills all looking to buy the little mill out. Also, an uncle descends, her mother’s brother, a fancy gentleman who wants Charlotte to sell the mill and be married off. But Charlotte Miller is nothing if not determined. She will run this mill, as her father did before her, if it’s the last thing she does.

But something seems constantly to work against her, and everyone in the town starts talking about the curse on Stirwaters Mill. Charlotte refuses to believe in such nonsense, but even she can’t deny that in five generations, no Miller son has ever lived into adulthood. She can’t deny that the mill has been passed in a crooked line, and that she and her sister are the only Millers left. She can’t deny that bad luck seems to hit every single Miller, and she can’t deny that strange things happen in the mill, things no one can explain.

And when the curse hits her, it hits hard. A banker by the name of Randall Woodstone comes to call, with devastating news – Charlotte’s father took out a loan before he died, and with his death, the entire sum is now due. If she can’t pay the 2000 pounds, the mill will be foreclosed, and she and the town will lose everything. Charlotte needs a miracle – and she’s determined to force one into being.

Already here from the start, this is a vastly different tale. No boasting father, no greedy king, no room of straw to be spun to gold. Instead, the obstacles and the people they surround are realer, in a way. Charlotte’s father wasn’t making ill boasts, he just took out a loan in secret, and no one knows where the money went. The king figure, Randall in this story, isn’t a greedy man out to line his own pockets, he just works for a bank and has to do his job.

But the change I like best is Charlotte. She doesn’t sit in a room and sob, she fights. She makes it clear to Randall and the bank from the get go that she will raise the money, that the mill is worth saving. She and the workers put their all into it, despite all the obstacles thrown in their path. And they succeed – they have their best lengths of cloth yet put away, waiting to be sold at market, and Randall is on their side. If they can come up with a third of the money by the deadline, they can pay the rest in installments. So rather than 2000 pounds, Charlotte needs 600, and she can get that at market.

But then the curse hits again, and Charlotte receives a letter, saying that Stirwaters failed to pay their guild fee, and so their stall at market and their right to sell there has been revoked. Plenty of cloth, but nowhere to sell it, and just two weeks til her deadline, Charlotte is desperate, and that’s when he arrives.

He calls himself Jack Spinner, and he offers to make Charlotte and Rosie a deal. He’ll spin a room full of straw into gold for the simple price of a cheap penny ring that belonged to Charlotte’s mother. Charlotte agrees, and by morning, she has almost a thousand spools of fine gold thread, and an ad telling her where she can sell them. Under the guise of a journey to talk to the bankers, Charlotte goes to the city and sells the thread, and the first payment is made.

Even better, she has a buyer for the stock stored away, so the second payment seems secure as well. And then Randall proposes. He has come to admire Charlotte’s spirit and her determination and her fire, and so he asks for her hand, and after some small bit of angsty deliberation, she says yes.

But in the midst of happiness and optimism, the curse keeps rearing its head. The Stirwaters sign falls and injures one of the workers. The daughter of a drunkard drowns in the millpond. Charlotte and Rosie’s Uncle Wheeler starts to urge them more and more strongly to sell the mill and marry off. And then, shortly after Charlotte and Randall’s wedding, the millpond freezes solid and the millwheel breaks. There’s no way to repair it until the spring thaw, and no way to start work again until it’s repaired. And then all the cloth that Charlotte had arranged to be sold is dragged from the woolshed and doused in bleach, torn and cut to shreds, and utterly, entirely destroyed. And again, the next payment deadline is looming, and Charlotte has no other choice. Randall asks if the cloth was insured, but Charlotte couldn’t afford such luxury, so they’ve lost everything.

Jack Spinner, sure enough, reappears at the scent of desperation, and offers to piece together all of the ruined cloth so that Charlotte has enough to sell. And all he asks this time is the enameled brooch Randall gave her as a wedding gift. This price is harder to pay, but Charlotte does it.

And that’s when everything slowly starts to crumble. Giving away the brooch is the start of the first few little breeches in Charlotte’s marriage. More and more, she becomes aware of what she has saddled Randall to, and rather than come clean and honest with him, she refuses to share the burden, keeping secrets and shutting him out. She argues with her sister on making changes to the mill wheel that she cannot afford. Her Uncle Wheeler is constantly at her, needling at her, urging her to sell. And through it all, Charlotte is finding it harder and harder to continue to not believe in the curse on Stirwaters.

She discovers who slashed the cloth one night when the drunkard whose daughter died in the millpond confesses to it. She fires him on the spot, but the action brings a sense of foreboding with it, because the man was clearly out of his mind. He claimed that the man who asked him to ruin the cloth promised him a treasure if he did, but he would not say who that man was.

When the spring thaws come, the pond is drained and the mill wheel replaced. Charlotte buys a new stock of wool to be worked, but then a new worry comes her way – she is pregnant. And then, one night, the woolshed burns. The workers save the mill and the millhouse, but the stock is lost. And burnt up along with the shed is Bill Penny, the drunkard who slashed the cloth. And he was found wearing a velvet coat that belonged to Uncle Wheeler.

Charlotte puts two and two together. She knows that her Uncle has been behind at least a decent portion of the sabotage, but she can’t prove it, and when she confronts him, he threatens her – if she accuses him publicly, he’ll speak out against her husband, her banker husband who took out an insurance policy for the mill just before the stock was destroyed by fire.

For just when you thought you could predict Jack Spinner’s third appearance, Bunce throws us a curveball. The insurance money pays the remainder of the debt, and Stirwaters is once again safe in Charlotte’s hands. She throws her uncle out into the streets for what he’s done, but she doesn’t tell Randall the whole of it, and it’s another break between them.

But because the curse isn’t done yet, and because Jack Spinner has yet to make his third appearance, we know the worst is yet to come – and so it does. One morning, Charlotte answers a hammering on the door to find a foreclosure notice being put up. She demands to know what is going on, and then the truth comes out – Uncle Wheeler has been taking out loans for months, forging Charlotte’s signature on them, and now he has defaulted, and the sum is 2300 pounds. If she can’t pay it by morning, the mill goes for auction.

Desperate, with nothing left to lose, Charlotte works the night through to summon Jack Spinner. At dawn, he appears, and recklessly, Charlotte promises him anything he wants if he can find a way to save the mill. He asks if she’s sure she wants to make such a promise, and she repeats the agreement – she’ll pay anything.

So Jack Spinner transforms himself into the guise of a buyer, and when the auction begins, he wins the bid. As he hands Charlotte the deed to her mill, he promises he’ll be back to collect what he owes. And that, of course, is when Charlotte goes into labor.

She bears a son, and she loves him instantly, but his birth makes her more fearful than ever. The loan has been paid, the mill is hers, her uncle is gone, but she knows the story is not done. Jack Spinner’s price remains to be asked, and she has a son now – a son, when no Miller son has lived to adulthood in five generations. And stubborn as she is, frightened as she is, she knows somehow that the secret to this curse, to Jack Spinner and what he is and what he wants is all tied up in the mill somehow. She just doesn’t know how.

She is piecing it together, but it takes time, and even more secrecy, even more lies, and finally, her lies and secrets succeed at doing what she wanted – pushing Randall away from her and the curse that she is now convinced she bears. All she has left is her son and her mill.

And that’s when Jack Spinner returns, to name his price. He makes a list of demands, from her wedding ring to her father’s journals. All of it, she willingly gives. Then he demands her son. Her son or her mill, that is his price. Horrified as she is by the demand, it’s another piece of the puzzle that she needed. All the clues are coming together, and she begs for time to make her decision. Three days, she begs. And he consents.

The challenge isn’t to discover his name, but discovering his name is essential to breaking the curse and keeping her son. Putting all the pieces together, Charlotte sets out to find the beginning of this story. She needs to discover who Jack Spinner was and what wrong was done to him by the Millers and the Wheelers five generations before. On All Hallows’ Eve, she journeys to a crossroads marked on a map of her father’s, and there, she sees an echo of the day that the first Miller and Wheeler who built Stirwaters strung Jack Spinner up and killed him as a witch. And as she watches, she learns him name. Armed with his name, a jar of earth from his grave, and his likeness in a corn dollie, she returns to face him.

His name was John Simple, and five generations before, his son Robin had died building the mill for the first Miller and Wheeler. A wall collapsed in the millpond, and they refused to let him give his son a true burial, or to retrieve the body. And when he tried to speak out against him, they killed him. For eighty years, his spirit has sought the ruin of the Millers. For eighty years, he has made bargain upon bargain to destroy their line and avenge his son.

Standing before him in the mill, she promises him a proper Christian burial. She bargains to keep her son and her mill, and to atone for the wrongs done to him and his family. When he refuses, then she uses the magic against him, binding him by name, the burying his figure with the earth from his grave. He disappears through a crack in the floorboards, and is gone.

And it’s happy endings all around! Charlotte and Randall are reunited, actually before the end of the story. Once she finally tells him everything, he stands by her, dedicated to helping her as he always was – he only left in the first place because he thought it was what she wanted. The curse is gone, John Simple is laid to rest, and we finally find out what Charlotte’s father did with that loan – he was suing the big mill who wanted to buy Stirwaters because they stole his design for a steam-powered loom. Stirwaters will prosper now, with a new Miller and a bright future.

Bunce weaves a truly masterful rendition of this story. It’s really brilliantly done, incredibly complex and intricate – I’ve barely scratched the surface in this synopsis because the complexity of this story is far beyond what I want to try and summarize. So let’s see how the checklist compares.

A point? Definitely. This story is well woven and well contained. The messages are strong, and there’s definitely a purpose. I like that it reads as Charlotte simply setting down her tale as all the Millers before her have done. This story is very strong, and it really resonates in a real way, as well.

Backstory for Rumpel? Oh, and what a backstory! The Millers took his son and his life, and so in return, he takes their sons and does all in his power to destroy the mill that destroyed his child. I like the idea that he’s been playing this pattern for years, the bargains with all the Millers, slowly decimating them one by one. Serving simultaneously as their savior and their destroyer. Did all the other Millers bargain their children away, I wonder? Did they choose the mill over their sons? Bunce has made the story that much darker for raising those questions and giving her Rumpel character such a rich place to have come from.

Likeable characters? Definitely. I love Charlotte. I want to hit her over the head for half the story, but I love her. She’s impossibly stubborn and fiery as hell and you do have to admire her spirit. She won’t see what’s right in front of her eyes until she can’t possibly ignore it anymore, and she pushes away the people who can help her because she won’t let them be hurt for her sake. She is wonderfully drawn. Likewise, Randall is a fantastic character. No greedy king, he’s just doing his job, and he does truly fall in love with Charlotte. I like the romance lent to this story, that pure grain of love given to what was originally just cold and lifeless. You can’t help but love Randall. As for the rest of the townsfolk, they are fantastic. A very rich cast of characters. You’ve still got the greedy bastard in Uncle Wheeler, but every story’s got to have one right?

Overall, Bunce has created the best kind of adaptation – she didn’t limit herself to a strict retelling of original events. Instead, she took this tale and found its essence, and that essence is what she worked into a new interpretation, and in my opinion, it far outshines its source.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: This is the story of two spinners. The first honed his craft at a stolen wheel, cramping and cramping his leg, turning a room of straw into a glittering dress for his beloved – and losing her. The second steals moments to teach herself, moments from her father’s eye. They yarn she creates is like no other. Saskia is her name, and she grows up to be a master spinner herself. Nothing is beyond her – until she, too, must spin straw into gold. And it is then that they meet.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

Donna Jo Napoli has a lot of fairy tale credit to her name. She’s taken any number of fairy tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Pied Piper – and given each one a brand new perspective and a solid novel that reveals the original story in a new light. And that is why it is so disappointing, almost to a painful degree, the few times she misses the mark.

Okay, to be fair, I loved 96.94% of this story (yes, I actually did the math). I loved it right up until the last page. And then it fell apart. But let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

We open with two young lovers, in a hayloft, in the middle of the afternoon, finishing up what you might expect two lovers to be doing at that time in that place. The young man is a tailor, hopelessly in love with this young girl, a spinster (in literal terms of the word – one who spins, rather than an old, unmarried lady). He has planned their future together, their partnership. And they’ve already consummated their love. All that’s left is to get her father’s permission, which the girl is certain he will have.

Except that the father is having doubts. He doesn’t know if the tailor is the best match for his daughter, especially since the miller, old and drunk, has asked after his daughter as well. A miller will be able to provide for her far better than a mere tailor. The tailor becomes desperate, begs and pleads and promises, and finally, rashly, desperately, says that he would be able to clothe the daughter in gold. So her father makes him a deal – if he can make a gold wedding dress in one month, he’ll win her hand. Otherwise, she’s going to the miller.

Well, this presents a problem. Because while the tailor could certainly make a golden dress if he had the cloth, he can’t afford the cloth. Even if he had just the thread, he could weave the cloth himself, but he also cannot afford the thread.

And so he gets a crazy idea. Certain plants yield fiber – flax, cotton, hemp – so why not straw? He has plenty of straw, and straw would give a golden thread – if he can get it to spin. The trouble is, he doesn’t have a wheel, and the only person who does is his love (who he can’t tell because she’ll think he’s crazy, and she’s already pretty mad at him), and a blind crone. He goes to the crone and offers to buy it or trade for it, or just to borrow it, but she will not. She warns him not to steal it, but of course he does anyway.

And when he begins to spin that night, he discovers that the wheel is a magic wheel, for not only does it spin the straw into actual golden thread, it completely takes control of his body as well. He cannot break free of its power, not until all the straw has been spun. And even once it does, it leaves his leg cramped and permanently bent.

At first, when his love discovers the thread, she is thrilled, but when he starts claiming that he spun it out of straw, she becomes concerned. The longer he goes without sleep, frantically and furiously trying to finish the gown in the time he has, the more she begins to pull away from him. He is crazed, like a man possessed, and even when he finishes his task, the girl’s father is so repelled by the tailor’s now bent leg and crazy demeanor that he takes the gown and promises the girl to the miller anyway. And the girl, once the tailor’s beloved, doesn’t argue. For she, too, is now repelled by what he has become.

And so, just like that, he tailor loses his love, his livelihood, his health, and his child – for his once-love is pregnant. She can’t reveal that it’s his, or her reputation will be ruined, and she needs to marry quickly so she can convince everyone that the child is the miller’s. All he has left is a crippled body, a magic spinning wheel, and the cruel name his former love hurled at him as she left for the last time.

First of all, I love this set up. I love it because we see Rumpel’s beginnings. This is where he came from. This is how he became who he is in the original story. And more than that, you know that the girl everyone thinks of as the miller’s daughter is actually Rumpel’s daughter, which adds a lovely new layer to this story.        

Ten years pass. The miller’s wife dies giving birth to her child, and so she is raised by the miller alone, a drunk and disinterested and detached man. She is called Saskia. On her tenth birthday, the midwife who birthed her gives her a necklace and a ring that belonged to her mother, and desperate to know which of her parents she truly resembles, she enlists the help of a friend to shave the miller while he sleeps. Fortunately for her, he remembers nothing when he wakes. Unfortunately, he believes that someone in the village did this to ridicule him, and so he starts to drink himself into a constant stupor and refuses to work his mill. Desperate and facing starvation, Saskia begs one of the village women to teach her to spin, so that she might have yarn to sell for money to get through the winter.

Meanwhile, the tailor has been traveling from family to family for ten years, desperate to find a place where he can belong and be accepted. But his heart has become as twisted as his leg and spine, and he faces nothing but revulsion and pity wherever he goes. He never stays in one place for long. Eventually, his yarn comes to the attention of a woman who works in the palace. It is fine enough to clothe the king, but obviously Rumpel can’t show himself at the palace, so the woman sets him up in secret in a house in the woods, far from prying eyes. She comes once a day to collect his yarn, and while there, she brings him the news of the kingdom. One day, she comes bearing yarn, yarn unlike anything he’s ever seen. Yarn that rivals his.

For Saskia has become a master spinner, a natural who spins the softest yarn, the sweetest smelling, the most colorful and creative ever seen. At first, she spun just to get her and her father through the winter. But when her father sobered up, she continued to spin. He took her yarns to the market and sold them, boasting all the while of her skill and cleverness.

When Elke tells Rumpel all this, and he sees first hand the yarn that she has spun, he knows exactly who she is. He knows she is his daughter, and he dreams of revealing himself to her, of finding someone to love him at long last. But he knows it will never happen. So he will be content to hear tales of her and her fine yarn.

Except that we all know that isn’t how this story works out. No, the king becomes aware of Saskia’s yarns, and wants to meet her. So she and her father journey to the palace. And when the king starts saying that her yarns aren’t really all that impressive, and that he’s seen better, well, that’s when the miller puts his boasting hat on and descends into true dumb-assery. Desperate to impress the king, he remembers something his wife told him long ago, and claims that his daughter can spin straw into gold. Which is a bold-faced lie. The king knows this, and so to punish the miller, he declares that if the girl can’t spin a room full of straw to gold by morning, he’ll kill her. If you think this sounds monstrously unfair, well you probably read my synopsis yesterday. But you’re also not the only one. The miller’s daughter has plenty of protests, none of which are listened to.

Furious with her father and the king alike, she is thrown into a room of straw. She even tries to spin it, in a beautiful little parallel to the scene in the beginning when Rumpel first tries the same thing. But it is impossible, and so she resorts to crying and begging through the door to be let out. Elke goes and tells Rumpel all that has happened, and Rumpel demands to be taken to the girl. It takes half the night, but he gets there, and Elke lets him into the room. Saskia didn’t hear him come in, and so she thinks he has appeared by magic. He offers to spin the straw for her, in exchange for her mother’s necklace that she wears around her neck.
And here, the story plays out much like the original, but with that added extra layer at work. See, it’s not just a necklace and a ring, it’s the necklace and ring that he so long ago gave to the woman he loved. It’s not just a random girl he’s helping, it’s his daughter. The one thing he wants more than anything is kinship, and here is the potential for that, but along with the potential is the fact that she does not know who he is. There’s a lot in this novel about names and identities being important, and that comes into play here. The balance is very one sided. He knows who she is, but she doesn’t know who he is, and so he has the power.

And when he comes the third night and she has nothing left to give, she offers herself to him, which of course is a horrifying proposition on so many levels. He refuses, of course, but before he can do so verbally, he touches her arm, and at that touch, he sees the revulsion in her eyes, and his heart twists a little more. And so he names a cruel price – her firstborn child. His grandchild. And infant he can raise, someone who will finally, finally love him.

She agrees because she has no choice, and in the morning, the king declares that he will marry her. She refuses. He is furious. She declares that she will not be a means for him to fill his palace with a never ending stream of gold. She declares that she will never weave again. And the king, surprisingly, lets her go, confident that once she has returned to the life she left behind, she will change her mind.

When she gets home, it’s to discover that her father has spent all his money to fill their house with straw, and now expects her to spin it to gold. Horrified and betrayed, she disowns herself from him, basically, and runs off, leaving him behind. But she soon discovers that everyone in the village sees her as a witch, a miracle worker, someone who cannot be fully trusted. The king appears, having followed her, and in a display, he burns her spinning wheel. He vows never to force her to spin again. So she relents and marries him.

But she is determined to never bear a child. She knows the price she agreed to, though she remains horrified that the price was ever asked. She takes every precaution she can, but it isn’t enough, and eventually, she gets pregnant.

Rumpel receives this news with glee and sets about getting his home ready to receive a child. Whenever he is touched by guilt over what he has done, he consoles himself through the knowledge that his daughter will have more children, and that he, too, deserves to be loved. And he does everything in his power to ensure that the child will have a warm and safe and full home to grow up in.

But when the Queen gives birth to a daughter, and he comes to claim his price. But Saskia begs and pleads and calls upon the memory of her mother, who she has figured out the little man knew, to claim any other price but her daughter. And Rumpel, for reasons that are almost clear, relents, and gives her three changes, three nights to guess his name. He also gives her hints, saying that her mother was good at names and creative. Over the first two nights, more hints drop. He says that his name is unusual, and she will have to be resourceful to discover it. She wants to know why he is giving her clues, whether he wants her to succeed or to fail. He realizes suddenly that he doesn’t know the answer to that question.

The second night, though, is when he really slips up, for he accidently calls her ‘daughter.’ However, instead of hearing this for what it is, it makes her think of the miller, who claimed that she could spin straw to gold because once upon a time, he’d heard her mother tell of another who could. She calls him to the palace and questions him about the little man. Elke overhears, and tells her where he lives, and so she sends guards to spy on him and learn his name.

And this is where the story falls apart for me. Because this is where Napoli and Tchen start sticking closer to the original tale than they have at any point before this. The guards follow the little man, who dances around a fire in the woods and sings his name, for no reason that we are given. And the third night when he stands before her, Saskia makes her pointless guesses, and then names him Rumpelstiltskin, and he is so angered that he loses control of his cursed foot, which breaks through the floorboards, rips from his body, and he dies before the Queen. And that’s the end.

And here’s my problem with it: a different possible ending was set up so beautifully that I was shocked when it didn’t happen. Throughout the whole narrative, Saskia has been given these clues about who she is and where she came from. She has a whole host of evidence to suggest that the miller is not her father, and a whole separate host that points straight to who is. And right before she names him, she even asks Rumpel why he named her daughter. There is so much weight given to this idea of names being important, of titles being important, of her mother having given him the name that he has taken into his heart, that when Saskia didn’t stand before him and name him “Father,” I was legitimately stunned because I thought for sure that was where we were going.

But no. Instead, it’s “Rumpelstiltskin,” and the foot through the floor, and the tearing in two, and just as in the original, we are left wondering what the hell just happened, and how is that the end of the story? It's very sudden, very abrupt, almost disorientingly so. We get no reaction from Saskia to his death, we have no idea what the king thinks of all this because he disappeared ten pages ago, and there is never any resolution surrounding this father and daughter and the parallel lives they’ve led. Because I was left imagining a better ending, the one I got was extraordinarily disappointing. And unfortunately, a disappointing final fifteen pages colors the wonderful 185 that came before. The ending they were building up to never happened, and so they become sad, and wonderful as they were, I don’t want to reread them because I know they won’t end the way they should.

But overall, how do we stack up against the checklist?

A point? Yeah, I mean, it’s in there. I got why the story was being told – it’s the tale of a father who lost his daughter and then found her again, and the message of identity being important, especially the identities that we give to others, is there, and strong. Again, I think that message could have been better represented with a different ending, but it is present in the novel as a whole.

Backstory for Rumpel? Definitely. The whole novel is backstory for Rumpel, since half of it is from his perspective. I understood where he came from, how he became the character we all know, and what his motivations were for almost all of the story. I even love how conflicted he became in the end, dropping hints to his daughter as if he did want her to succeed. The only part that didn’t match up was that singing in the woods. If it had been spun that he knew the guards were there listening, that he revealed his name on purpose, and then, expecting her to name him Rumpelstiltskin and keep her child, she instead names him Father, and – but that’s me spinning a better ending again, and what if doesn’t change what is, so we’ll give this a point and a half and move on.

Likeable characters? Yes. The king was still a bastard, but not quite as much of one – he had sympathetic moments. The miller is also still and idiot and a bastard, but he gets his comeuppance. Rumpel is fascinatingly drawn, and becomes a really sympathetic character. And Saskia is pretty kickass, until the ending makes her kinda dumb and kinda selfish.

And yet, for all that the novel meets all three points, I still can’t justify recommending it. And it’s because of those last ten pages. Up to that point, this is a brilliant novel. But the poor ending ruins it, and I don’t want to recommend a book that’s just going to disappoint you. So, sorry, Donna Jo Napoli (and Richard Tchen, I guess), but this one is not your best work. And it really is a shame. I liked so much of it. I wish I could have liked all of it.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rumpelstiltskin (According to Cassie)

Rumpelstiltskin (According to Cassie)

So basically, there’s this miller, and he’s a dumbass. Seriously. He spends most of his time going around telling tall tales, stretched truths, and just flat-out lies to all the people he encounters. Specifically, one day, he gets it in his head to go around and tell people that his daughter is so skilled a weaver that she can spin straw itself into pure gold. One person who hears his story? The king.

And because this king is a selfish and greedy king, he says, “Okay, bring me this person who can make instant money pretty much out of nothing.” When the girl is brought to the castle, she’s shown to a room filled with straw. Her instructions from the king? Spin the whole room full of straw to gold by morning, or be killed.

Which seems remarkably unfair. She’s going to be killed because her father is a lying jerkwad? Three paragraphs in, I already hate this king.


Of course the girl possesses no such talent (where did her father even come up with that??), and she sits in that room full of straw crying because she’s going to be killed and there’s nothing she can do to stop that.

Suddenly, the door opens and a dwarf steps in. He asks why she’s crying, and she explains the situation. He tells her that he knows how to spin straw into gold, and he’ll do it for her – for a price. All she has is a necklace, but he accepts it and spins the whole room of straw into gold.

The king is thrilled – and not satisfied. Since she did one room, why not another, even bigger room? Oh, and she’ll still be killed if she fails. So the process repeats, this time she offers a ring to the little man, and again, the straw is spun to gold.

The next morning, the king shows up, and again, is thrilled – and still incredibly greedy. Not content with two whole rooms of gold, he takes her to a third, the largest yet, and promises her that if she spins all that straw to gold, she’ll not only not be killed, she’ll get to marry him and become Queen, too!

Now, let’s be clear here. This is not a romantic gesture. He hasn’t fallen in love or anything like that. He’s just looked at this girl and seen the richest possible wife he could ever get. By marrying her, he’ll have a never ending supply of gold! And the girl can’t protest, or she’ll lose her life.

But no more able to spin straw into gold than she was before, she again calls the little man with her tears. Unfortunately, she’s out of cheap jewelry and has nothing to offer him. Luckily, the man assures her that she can offer something she’ll have at some time in the future. Room one was bought for a necklace, room two for a ring, so a reasonable price for room three is her firstborn child. Sounds legit.

And the girl agrees to this. Now, I have to take a minute and defend this nameless character against the readers who go, “How could she possibly promise away her child??” by reminding them that, at this point, it’s that or death. Also, it’s not like she has a child yet; any number of things could happen between now and birthing a potential future child, which she notes. So, yeah, I’m not condemning her for agreeing to these terms.

Well, when the king sees the room of gold, he makes good on his promise and makes the miller’s daughter a Queen. And soon enough, she gives birth to a baby boy, and then who should appear but the little man, come to claim his price. But the girl cannot bear to give up her son. She offers the man all the treasures of her kingdom, but no dice. However, she cries so heartily that the man feels sorry for her, and gives her a way out. She has three days to guess his name. If she can, she can keep her baby. If not, the little prince goes with him.

So she spends the first two days basically listing every single name she can think of, but the man answers no to each one. Desperate, she has a messenger sent to follow the man, to see if he can learn anything, and lo and behold, the little man is almost as stupid as the miller, because apparently he likes to dance around a campfire in the woods singing his name out loud. It’s Rumpelstiltskin, and the messenger takes this knowledge back to the Queen.

So on the third night, the Queen decides to toy with the little man. She asks if his name is Conrad or Harry (really?), and finally reveals that she knows his name to be Rumpelstiltskin. Rumpelstiltskin is so furious that he tears himself in two and dies. The end. No, seriously. That’s the end of the story. That’s it.

So . . .

Thoughts on the original tale?

This story raises so many questions. Why would the miller go around making up these stories? How did Rumpel learn to spin straw into gold? Why does he want a baby? Why on earth would he shout his name to high heaven when he’s specifically trying to keep it from the Queen and no one in the world knows it but him? Did the King have any idea that any of this was going on?
And . . . what happens in the end?

Basically, this is one of the more nonsensical fairy tales out there, and it really doesn’t seem to have a point. I mean, no one has any character growth or learns anything, and there isn’t really any sort of moral at all.

So what do I want out of an adaptation?

First and foremost, a point. Why are we telling this story? What is the reader supposed to get out of it? What’s the message? Not every story needs to have a moral, I grant you, but I’d like to finish the tale not feeling as if the last line should be “And then I found five dollars,” know what I’m saying?

Second, some motivation for Rumpelstiltskin. I want to know really anything about why he does all this. Why does he help the girl in the first place? What is he trying to get out of it? Why does he want a child? Why does he reveal his name? Why is it a secret in the first place? I really need this character to be fleshed out a bit more.

Third, some likeable characters. Because there really aren’t any. The miller’s an idiot, the king’s a bastard, Rumpel is ridiculous, and the miller’s daughter is just sort of . . . there. I mean, it works for a three-page fairy tale, but if I’m going to read a full length novel with these characters, I need to like at least one of them.

So! This month, the line-up is as follows:

Week 1: Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli
Week 2: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C Bunce
Week 3: The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
Week 4: The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn

Feel free to read along!