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.

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