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.