Golden by Cameron Dokey
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: Before Rapunzel’s birth, her mother made a dangerous deal with the sorceress Melisande: if she could not love newborn Rapunzel just as she appeared, she would surrender the child to Melisande. When Rapunzel was born completely bald and without hope of ever growing hair, her horrified mother sent her away with the sorceress to an uncertain future. After sixteen years of raising Rapunzel as her own child, Melisande reveals that she has another daughter, Rue. She was cursed by a wizard years ago and needs Rapunzel’s help. Rue and Rapunzel have precisely “two nights and the day that falls between” to break the enchantment. But bitterness and envy will come between the girls, and if they fail to work together, Rue will remain cursed forever.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So, I may have mentioned before that Cameron Dokey (with one notable exception which we’ll get to later in the year) can basically do no wrong in my book? Yeah, that’s because she’s brilliant, most of the time, and Golden is one of the books that proves that in my mind.
We start with a typical Dokey meta-commentary on some aspect of the nature of storytelling, in this instance dealing with the fact that it’s the middle of the story that’s most important, more than what starts or ends it. And also that stories live on, not people, and so a story cannot truly grant immortality the way many seem to want. The prologue also speaks to how love happens, whether it can be the work of a moment, or if it doesn’t more often require more than that. It’s a Dokey prologue, in other words, and I love it.
Rapunzel narrates her own tale, telling us of her parents and the vegetable that her mother so craved, and it’s the story we all know. The husband climbs the wall and gets caught by the sorceress, but this is where things start to diverge ever so slightly. Before naming her price for the theft, the sorceress declares she must first see the man’s wife, and only then will she make her deal.
In meeting Rapunzel’s mother, it’s made clear to us that she is an incredibly vain and selfish creature. So the sorceress makes a deal with her. If, when the child is born, the mother can love her entirely and immediately, then there will be no further discussion of price. But if she can’t, then the child will be given to the sorceress to raise. Rapunzel’s mother agrees, almost dismissively. Rapunzel’s father is much more upset. But as the sorceress points out to him, with true regret, no action can be without consequence, and his consequence is that this decision is not his to make.
But when Rapunzel is born, she is bald. And not normal-baby bald, no-peach-fuzz, no hair to speak of, no chance of ever growing any. Now wait, Cassie, I hear some of you say. Rapunzel? Rapunzel, famed for her impossibly-long golden hair? Bald? Yes, I answer the imaginary and snarky among you. Patience.
But Rapunzel’s vain mother takes one look at her child and blanches, calling the baby hideous and demanding that she be taken away. And so, the sorceress takes her, though she assures Rapunzel’s father that he will see his daughter again someday.
So Rapunzel grows up with the sorceress, whose name is Melisande. And Melisande is completely honest from the beginning that Rapunzel is not her daughter, and is never to call her “Mother.” Rapunzel wonders about her parents, of course, but she leads a mostly happy life with Melisande, away from the village where she was born.
But Melisande’s original prophecy – that Rapunzel would never grow hair – turns out to be true. And when it’s just the two of them, this doesn’t bother Rapunzel.
But one day when they have to venture into the village, she gets away from Melisande and starts playing a game of soccer with the local children. She’s fine as long as her head covering is on, but then, during the game, it gets pulled off. When her baldness is discovered, the villagers all stare and whisper, saying she must be cursed. When Melisande comes to get her, she works her power on the villagers to show each of them the hate and distrust in their hearts. None of them can meet her eyes, but Rapunzel can. So Melisande basically calls a whole town wusses and takes Rapunzel back home. It’s kinda awesome, not gonna lie.
So, after this episode, in enters the tinker. His name is Mr. Jones, and he and Rapunzel strike up a conversation as he’s passing their home one day, and when Melisande comes out to meet him, they have a very odd exchange. Though they talk as if they’re strangers, Rapunzel is pretty sure there’s more being said than what she knows. (Spoilers – the tinker is Rapunzel’s father. Rapunzel, of course, doesn’t find this out until the end of the novel, but it’s made pretty clear to the reader from the get-go). The tinker gives Rapunzel a kitten, a fact that I mention now because it becomes important later on.
The tinker has an assistant who Rapunzel catches in the barn one night trying to run away. She convinces him to stay with the tinker who, while not his father, has made a place for the boy in his heart, just as Melisande did for Rapunzel. The boy’s name is Harry, and he and Rapunzel strike up a friendship, though being being two twelve-year-olds, it’s about what one might expect – lots of teasing and name calling.
And three years pass. Harry and Mr. Jones stop by relatively often, and each time they come, Harry brings Rapunzel a new head scarf, more and more elaborate. The first he ever brought her, though, is her favorite, for it’s embroidered all over with black-eyed Susans, and it makes her look, from afar, as if she has a head of golden hair. Harry, it should be noted, doesn’t think of odd in the slightest that Rapunzel is bald.
But then, a drought hits the land, and for a while they get by, but when the drought goes on and on without end, the villagers start to remember that there’s a sorceress living close to them. Mr. Jones and Harry are able to warn Melisande and Rapunzel in time for them to slip away from home and avoid the oncoming mob. Harry splits off from the party to try and lead the mob in the wrong direction and give the others more time to escape, but of course before he goes, he kisses Rapunzel because there’s romance abrewin’.
When they stop for the night, Melisande decrees that “it’s time.” And so she sits Rapunzel down to tell her the things that have never been told before.
Mainly, that Melisande has a daughter. Her real name is never to be spoken, but Melisande calls her Rue, out of her regret. Some years before, before Rapunzel was born, Melisande acted thoughtlessly in the presence of a wizard. She failed to use her gift to see into the hearts of others, and so inadvertently caused pain to another. The wizard who observed this cursed Melisande to live without what she treasured most until the curse could be broken. But he made a mistake. Since he valued his power more than all else, he thought Melisande would, too. But instead, Melisande’s daughter was snatched away from her, imprisoned in a tower in an enchanted stasis until Melisande could find the key to opening Rue’s heart and freeing her.
When Rapunzel was born and her mother forsook her, Melisande looked into her heart, and saw a piece of her daughter there, and so became determined to raise Rapunzel in love. But also, she now admits, she hoped that Rapunzel might one day be the key to freeing Rue.
Rapunzel is not exactly thrilled to learn this. She feels as if she’s been lied to her whole life, and she is very angry with Melisande until Mr. Jones can talk her down from this anger. So, slightly more calmly, she asks what breaking the curse will entail, but Melisande doesn’t know. All she knows is that Rapunzel has to agree to do it, Rue has to agree to let Rapunzel help her, and they have only two nights and the day inbetween to figure it out.
Which is an awful lot of “if”s to be building off of, especially when Rapunzel and Melisande get to the tower, climb up Rue’s hair, and meet her. Because Rue and Rapunzel? Don’t exactly hit it off. As angry as Rapunzel was to hear that Melisande had a daughter she’d never been told about, Rue is just as angry to learn that she has apparently been replaced in her mother’s life. And it looks for a long time like everything’s just going to go merrily to hell and leave everyone unhappy, when Rue meets Rapunzel’s cat, the one I told you would be important later. She falls in love with the cat, and Rapunzel is able to use the act as an analogy for the two of them both being able to love Melisande and help each other out of this situation.
What Dokey has done here is wonderful – she has doubled the Rapunzel story. You have the bald girl named Rapunzel who’s the one whose parents gave her up in exchange for some vegetables, and then you have the girl with the magical golden hair stolen away from her mother and locked in a tower. Melisande becomes both the mother and the witch. Rue and Rapunzel each make up half of the fairy tale damsel. And it’s wonderful. There’s no big plot twist at the end of this story – it doesn’t need it. The twist is that there are two, and so instead of being shocked by the end of the story, we get to see how all these seemingly too many pieces come together in the end to be the story we all know.
Well, Rapunzel agrees to try and break the enchantment, and so Melisande and the tinker leave them to try and work it out. But then Harry shows up. And Harry isn’t happy. He thinks Rapunzel is acting rashly, and he thinks she should have waited, and he says all these things that make Rapunzel so exasperated that she calls Rue to come out to the balcony to prove a point, but no sooner has she actually convinced Rue over her very great fears to do this, than she figures it was probably a mistake. Because the minute he sees Rue, Harry is struck dumb with wonder and awe at her beauty. And Rapunzel? Is made forcefully aware of the fact that she loves him.
Harry stumbles away, and Rapunzel is miserable, and she takes it out on Rue, which sets them back a few dozen steps. See, Rue was terrified to leave her tower at all, even the few steps it would take to come out onto the balcony, especially if it involves meeting someone. Rue is afraid that because of the spell she was under, no one will ever be able to like or love her, and Rapunzel wanted to prove that wasn’t true. Rapunzel had to coax her out the whole way to meet Harry, and now she’s acting like it was a mistake, and Rue gets angry with her for it, understandably. So Harry storms away and Rue storms back inside, and Rapunzel is left out on the balcony unable to sleep.
In a lovely throwback to the original, Rapunzel starts talking to herself about the whole mess of a situation, and much to her surprise, a voice floats up from below, answering her rhetorical questions. She is startled, and thinks it’s Harry, but he soon proves that he isn’t. His name is Alexander, and he is a prince. He wants to know if she’s a damsel in distress, because if she is, he might be able to rescue her, and if he does that, he’ll be able to marry her and not the foreign princess his father wants. When Rapunzel points out that he doesn’t know her any better than he knows the foreign princess, he replies that this may be true, but at least he’d be making his own choice this way.
And that’s when Rapunzel gets her brilliant idea. Maybe, she reasons, the key to breaking the curse lies with convincing Rue that it’s all right to leave the tower. That she wants to leave the tower. And since Rue confessed earlier that she wished so often for a knight to come rescue her, this seems like the perfect solution, especially since Alex hasn’t seen Rapunzel – he’s only heard her (and engaged in some marvelous banter, I will point out). If she can get Rue to open her heart to Alex, she hopes that this will break the enchantment.
So she makes Alex promise to wait until nightfall the next day and come back. Her plan is to convince Rue to step into the role she created in their conversation, but unfortunately, it isn’t going to be that easy. For one thing, Harry didn’t disappear like Rapunzel thought. He’s been there hiding, listening to everything, and now he believes that Rapunzel is planning to run away with this prince and abandon her task. He’s angry and jealous because he thinks Rapunzel is in love with Alex, and Rapunzel is angry and jealous because she thinks Harry is upset over her potentially leaving Rue, and – guys, this is what happens when we don’t use our words.
But she convinces him in the end to look after Alex, who managed to trip in the dark and knock himself out, and make sure he comes back the next night. And her next challenge is convincing Rue to agree to the plan.
Rue is incredibly not happy with Rapunzel’s plan. Rapunzel tries to argue that Alex wants to marry her, and Rue comes back with, no, he wants to marry Rapunzel, but Rapunzel argues that she doesn’t have to be the Rapunzel he falls in love with. She says if she just talks to him the next night and shows him her face, she’ll be the one he attaches to, and he never needs to know there were two of them.
This scene is marvelous because it takes that classic “love at first sight” trope and turns it on its head. Rue and Rapunzel are very much alike when all is said and done, and the conversation he had the night before he truly might have had with either of them. This novel puts forth the idea that love is as much circumstance and desire as it is any kind of predestination, and while that may not be a popular romantic theory, it is one that I support whole-heartedly.
And it almost works. Rue goes to the balcony. She looks over the edge. He sees her and attaches his love to this face with its amazing hair – and then he calls her Rapunzel, and Rue freezes again. Rapunzel has to step in and keep the conversation going. Alex says he loves her, and Rapunzel asks how he can, since they just met. She asks if he truly believes love can happen in an instant. He answers with a tale from his land, about a king and queen whose marriage was arranged. The queen on their wedding day asked for one thing – a room that would always protect her, keep her warm and dry and safe, etc, etc. In the typical way of those sorts of stories, he took it as a literal room, but in the end, it was the space he made for her in his heart that she had asked for. This story convinces Rue to open her own heart to Alex. She uses the magical gift that Melisande possesses to look into the hearts of both Rue and Alex. And what she sees there isn’t full blown love, but rather the seed of love planted, a seed that can grow into true love given time and energy.
She tells Rue of this, and makes one last request before the enchantment is broken – that Rue go with him using her name, Rapunzel. For Rue was never Melisande’s daughter’s true name. It was a name born out of sorrow, and she should go forth in her new life with a new one. Besides, Rapunzel tells her, she would much rather that Rapunzel live on in people’s minds as a girl known for her magnificent hair, rather than a girl known for being bald. And she never much cared for the name, anyway.
Rue agrees, and once she agrees to marry Alex and go forth with an open heart, the enchantment is broken. And Alex and new-Rapunzel make a life together, just as Harry and old-Rapunzel do as well. And Melisande is reunited with both her daughters, and Rapunzel, now Susan, is reunited with her family, and it all wraps up very nicely.
The book is very well done, and no, it isn’t as sappy as I made it sound. The message isn’t heavy-handed; it’s very well delivered, and as I said, it’s one of my favorites from Cameron Dokey. But let’s look at the checklist, yeah?
Explanation for the parents’ behavior? Yep – Mom was a selfish bitch. Rapunzel learns from her father at the end that she died not long after Rapunzel was taken away, and personally, I think Dad’s better off. I love that he continued to be in the story. I love that he found a way to be near his daughter, and I love that Melisande let him. You got the sense that she really did feel sorry for this man, asked to pay an unfair price. But in the end, he got to watch his daughter grow, and got to tell her who she was, and the romantic in me totally ships Dad and Melisande.
Exploration of Rapunzel’s childhood? Yes, and I love it! I love the relationship we see built between Melisande and Rapunzel – that Melisande makes clear the fact that she is not Rapunzel’s mother, but that she loves Rapunzel all the same. From the sounds of it, Rapunzel had a perfectly lovely childhood, apart from the bald thing, and Melisande is one of my favorite characters in this story. She is so strong, and I love the way her magic works – she sees into people’s hearts, and can show them what lies there. Beautifully done.
Explain the unexplained? Magical hair? Part of the wizard’s enchantment. How does it affect Rue? She hates it – she’s constantly tripping over it, it makes getting dressed very difficult, it’s just a nightmare. Magical tears? Didn’t come into play in this adaptation.
Wrap up the loose ends? Yes, and very nicely too. We know what happened to both Rapunzel’s parents. We know what happens to Melisande and the prince and Rue, and far from being a huge secret, the prince coming to the tower was something consciously worked for and towards. In the end, very nicely done.
Cameron Dokey can weave a story, folks. Very well done, all around.