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.


  1. I am behind so I am just reading your Rumple stories. And you keep adding books to my list of must-reads.

  2. I have the same problem with the YA lit blogs I follow -- I keep adding titles to my already too-long list of books to be read!