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.