Friday, October 12, 2012

Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair by Wendy Mass

Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair by Wendy Mass

Target Audience: 9-12

Summary: Rapunzel is having the ultimate bad day. She’s been stolen by a witch, may have a ghost for a roommate, and doesn’t even have a decent brush for her hair. Prince Benjamin’s got it pretty bad, too. His father wants him to be more kingly, his mother wants him to never leave her sight, and his cousin wants to get him into as much trouble as possible (preferably with a troll). Both Rapunzel and Prince Benjamin are trapped – in very different ways. Once their paths cross, well, that’s when things REALLY get strange.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So, I like Wendy Mass. She writes for the 9-12 audience, and she does so very well. She has I think three of these fairy tale novels, and while they’re not the most life-changing or deep adaptations I’ve ever read, she does manage to adapt the stories for a younger audience without dumbing them down at all, and she makes the characters very relatable to the target readers.

She chooses in this novel to alternate narratives between Rapunzel and Prince Benjamin, which I don’t hate. It’s not the best example of multiple narratives I’ve read, but it serves its purpose in the story. For purposes of clarity, though, as I summarize, I’m not going to alternate perspectives.

I’ll start with Rapunzel. The first thing we notice about Rapunzel is that she’s nearly twelve years old and still living with her parents, which, if you’ll recall, runs a bit counter to the typical Rapunzel story. See, in Mass’s version, Rapunzel wasn’t raised by the witch. She was raised by her parents, who are rampion farmers. They are renowned for being able to grow rampion better than any other farmer, but we soon learn that it wasn’t always this way.

On the morning of Rapunzel’s twelfth birthday, a witch shows up at her door, telling her parents that the time has come, and that she is here to collect Rapunzel. Her parents don’t take well to this – they try to argue, try to fight, but a deal’s a deal, and in the end they have no choice but to tell Rapunzel the truth and let the witch take her.

Rapunzel narrates this, and she is incredibly twelve. A modern-day twelve, I want to stress. This is an interesting choice, but it works. Because the story isn’t set in the modern day, it’s set in the vaguely medieval fairy tale time, but giving Rapunzel a modern voice makes her a bit more accessible to the readers. And while some might find her view on things a bit childish and therefore irritating, she actually amuses me. A lot. She’s so very melodramatic, but in a way that allows her to stand up to the witch as much as she’s able. She’s got spunk.

Anyway, the witch allows her to collect a few things and then takes her to a tower in the middle of nowhere. Rapunzel isn’t pleased at being the witch’s prisoner, and she makes her displeasure known. Not that there’s much she can do about it. But as time goes by, Rapunzel begins to suspect that something’s up. Her hair, which was already pretty long, has started growing about a foot a day, and she’s never awake to see the witch enter or leave the tower. She’s pretty sure there’s enchantments going on around her, and she’s not particularly pleased about it.

And she’s also conflicted in what to think of the witch because on the one hand, the witch treats her horribly. But on the other, whenever she’s fed, she’s given little gifts and things that really lift her spirits, and it isn’t until she gets clever one day that she learns it isn’t the witch at all who is feeding her and leaving her these gifts – it’s a strange little green man who lives in her ceiling.

His name is Steven, and he is trapped in the tower much like Rapunzel, except that he is there because of a debt he owes Mother Gothel. Some time before, his child was suddenly unable to breathe when he was alone with his father. Steven yelled for help, and the witch was there and saved his child’s life. And so now, Steven must repay the debt. But he feels sorry for Rapunzel, stolen from her parents and locked up in the tower. Rapunzel becomes determined to find a way for the two of them to escape.

She also figures out that the witch didn’t rescue Steven’s son by accident. Rather, she was the cause of his distress because she needed to trick Steven into his debt. Steven points out that the witch probably did the same thing to Rapunzel’s parents, who had never liked rampion before the witch moved in next door, and who weren’t the kind of people to trade their child away for a vegetable.

Armed with this knowledge and a new anger against the witch, Steven helps Rapunzel up through the trapdoor in her ceiling and down the stairs that lead to the bottom of the tower. But unfortunately, due to some very poor timing, they’re making their escape just as the witch shows up. Steven gets away, but Rapunzel is not that lucky.                                                                           

And now, she truly is a prisoner. No food, no companionship, just her alone in the tower, and the witch wrecks the things Rapunzel brought with her, so all she has to do is sit there day by day and wait for the witch to bring her food. And Rapunzel’s hair is now long enough for the witch to climb it, which seems to be what she was waiting for all along, though this raises some questions that don’t really get answered satisfactorily – like, why Rapunzel? And why, if the witch wanted a child, did she wait twelve years to pick her up? And why was she forcing Rapunzel’s hair to grow so long she could climb it before she knew that Rapunzel would try to escape and so need to be sealed off from the perfectly good set of stairs above the tower room?

But anyway, this is where we’ll leave Rapunzel to circle back and pick up the prince’s tale.

Prince Benjamin is torn between a mother who constantly babies him and a father who wants him to learn to be more kingly. So he really has no idea what’s actually expected of him. To top it all off, his cousin Elkin is staying with him, and they’ve never really gotten along. Elkin has a habit of getting Benjamin into trouble.

Well, one day, Benjamin is chasing a hare along the bank, when he falls and breaks his glasses. He’s quite blind without them (bonus points if you know already how an end element of this story is going to come into play), so this is a bit of a problem. Luckily, he runs into a boy about his age whose father can fix the glasses. At this boy’s house, Benjamin is dismayed to learn that there are about fifty boys in this village alone who are all named after him, because this kingdom has the somewhat silly tradition of forcing all boys born in the three years after the prince to share the prince’s name.

Well, it hits Benjamin at this point that he really hasn’t done anything worthy of being named after, and he should probably try to fix that. He also feels bad for this poor family and wants to find a way to help them. He confides all this to Andrew, a squire and one of Benjamin’s only friends, and like the twelve year old boys that they are, they concoct a ridiculously complicated scheme.

See, Andrew’s heard a rumor about a troll that lives in a cave in the forest jealously guarding treasure. He figures if Benjamin can find it and defeat it, he can then lead the other Benjamin to the cave by “accident,” co-discover the treasure, and let the Other Benjamin leave with half of it. Because, you know, having the Other Benjamin’s father just come to the palace to be the chief spectacle maker for the prince who goes through them like it’s his job is not convoluted or plot-advancing enough.

But you know what? I buy this. Because I work with twelve-year-old boys. And this is accurate.

Unfortunately, the have to let Elkin in on the plan, but surprisingly, he’s totally down for it. He’s even incredibly helpful. So adequately unprepared, the boys journey into the forest in search of a ferocious troll! But when they find the troll’s cave, they discover that, rather than a troll, its occupant is actually a hermit who created the legend to keep people away.

So that sucks. But the hermit is able to give the boys some good advice once they tell him their convoluted plan. Now, the advice is not “Why don’t you make the Other Benjamin’s father the palace spectacle maker,” but rather some generic fairy tale advice about learning to listen to the song in your heart, but since it’s that advice that leads Benjamin to Rapunzel, which is deliberate, I’ll let it slide.

See, when Steven escaped, he discovered the hermit, and they were just discussing how to free Rapunzel when Benjamin and Elkin showed up. So, knowing that Rapunzel likes to sing, the hermit and Steven concoct their own convoluted plan rather than go to the palace and say, hey, there’s a girl trapped in a tower by a witch, let’s go free her.

But anyway, as they’re heading home, Benjamin hears Rapunzel singing and follows the sound. He finds her tower, watches the witch climb the hair, and decides to try it himself. He gets to Rapunzel’s room at the top and is promptly hit in the head with a pewter bowl, which made me giggle. He starts to tell Rapunzel off, but she rightly points out that he just tricked her and climbed up her hair into her tower uninvited. Benjamin concedes the point.

Rapunzel tells him her story, and he resolves to help her in any way that he can. She comes up with the idea of bringing silk to make a ladder that she can climb down. He returns the next day with all he could find in the palace, but it’s not quite long enough, so he resolves to search some more.

At this point, Rapunzel is so desperate to escape, and so close to it, that she loses her temper with the witch the next day and accidently mentions the prince. Yeah, it’s kinda the Grimm cop-out, but not as bad because a) this Rapunzel isn’t a bimbo, b) it’s made clear that this was comment snapped in exhaustion and irritation, and c) Rapunzel realizes how dumb a mistake she just made almost immediately.

So yeah, Mother Gothel cuts her hair, tosses her from the tower, and traps her in a clearing surrounded by very tall brambles. Then she waits for Benjamin to appear, which he does. He climbs the tower, gets attacked by the witch, and loses his glasses (did you get the points?). Then the witch throws him from the tower, but his pony catches him before he can die (one arched eyebrow . . .). But, he manages to grab the braid of hair on his way back down, effectively trapping the witch in her own tower.

Realizing that she’s probably gotten Benjamin into trouble, Rapunzel starts singing for all she’s worth, and Benjamin, blind without his glasses, lets his pony lead him to the sound. They get Rapunzel out of the brambles, take her back to the palace, and tell everyone their story. The witch is dealt with, Benjamin finally feels worthy of having boys named after him, the Other Benjamin’s father is brought to the palace as the chief spectacle maker (why didn’t I think of that!!), and Rapunzel is reunited with her parents.

Know what doesn’t happen? Rapunzel and Benjamin don’t fall in love and get married. She goes home, he marries a princess, and they remain friends. I love it.

This is a fun little story. And yes, I know before I’ve used “fun little” in a derogatory sense, but I don’t mean that here. I mean, this isn’t anything that’s going to shake the foundations of the world, but it’s an amusing look at Rapunzel, and I enjoyed reading it. It’s ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, and that’s appealing to me. But let’s see how it does with the checklist.

Explanation for the parents’ behavior? Yep, and it’s pretty straightforward – they were enchanted. Now, I’m not sure why Mother Gothel fixated on them in particular or why she let them raise their daughter for twelve years, but those points fall elsewhere on the list. This is just looking at an explanation, and check – it’s there.

Exploration of Rapunzel’s childhood with Mother Gothel? Yep – she didn’t have one. She was raised by her parents, and what we see of her life is fun. She hates rampion with a passion, which amuses me. And then, in the tower, the way she relates to Mother Gothel is lovely, too. Rapunzel here really is a young girl who isn’t old enough to be afraid of her situation in the beginning. She deliberately antagonizes Mother Gothel because she’s pissed and it doesn’t occur to her that that might be a dangerous course of action. She learns soon enough, but that progression and growth was well done.

Explain the unexplained elements? Well, the hair was an enchantment (and Rapunzel was not happy about it!), and Rapunzel couldn’t feel the weight, also part of the enchantment. And there were no healing tears. Instead, Rapunzel had with her the spare pair of glasses Benjamin left in the tower after his first visit. And can I just say? I really enjoyed how Mass got around the blindness. That was legitimately clever, and entirely appropriate for the audience.

Wrap up the loose ends? Yeah, we did that fairly well. All of the questions the novel deliberately posed got answered. I can’t say the same for the questions that I think just occurred to me, but I’ll give the points.

So yeah, it’s not a perfect novel, and it’s not particularly deep. There are some plot holes, and the book as a whole is pretty fluffy. But I enjoyed reading it, and it made me laugh, so yeah. Give it a whirl if you have a couple hours.

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