Thursday, January 31, 2013

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Wrap Up

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Wrap Up

So, as Matthew pointed out in his guest post from earlier this week, Snow White is one of those fairy tale with not a lot to recommend it, and if Walt Disney hadn’t sunk his teeth into it, it probably wouldn’t be remembered much at all these days. The evidence of this is, I believe, in the way we saw the story retold this month. More than any other fairy tale we’ve looked at, this month’s novels seem to stray far from the original plot line.

Snow takes the story to an entirely different time period, replacing magic with science and dwarfs with half-human/half-animal hybrids.

Snow in Summer does a similar thing, taking the story to the Appalachia mountains and infusing it with those superstitions and traditions, churches of black magic, demons and devils, and things of that nature. Both Snow and Snow in Summer feel much more grounded in the real world than the original story does, and both take dramatic turns away from the elements of that story.

Fairest departs the most dramatically, using the basic outline of Snow White more as a vehicle to use to explore a world already created by the author. The ideas inherent in Snow White are there, but they are used in drastically different ways, and the plot takes a lot more twists and turns.

Fairest of All is the closest to the original story, and even it exists as a deliberate retelling of the Disney movie, in much the same way that Gregory Maguire’s Wicked does with The Wizard of Oz.

Because I think these authors found what Matthew and I have observed: there’s just not that much too this story, and there’s so much about it that is problematic. So they found their own way to spruce up the story. And you know what? It works. While we have to have respect for an original source material that we work from, it’s also important to feel the freedom to branch out, to take the story down to its bare essentials and build up from there. That’s what our authors this month have done.

So! The rankings.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine and Fairest of All by Serena Valentino come Highly Recommended, while Snow by Tracy Lynn and Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen both come Recommended. All in all, a good showing this month.               

Other Notable Novels: Serpent’s Shadow by Mercedes Lackey, and given that her Elemental Masters series is one of my favorite fairy tale series out there, I really should actually include one in a review one of these months. I get daunted by how long and complicated they are, making them really hard to summarize, but they’re fantastic!

Next month, we look at Jack and the Beanstalk! See you all tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guest Post: Disney's Snow White with Matthew

Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

or “How Disney Popularized a Really, REALLY Mediocre Faerie Tale With Vastly Entertaining Filler Material”

Seriously, folks, let’s face it. What does the story of Snow White really have to offer? Not that much. It’s basically Sleeping Beauty with little people. If not for Walt Disney’s odd fixation with this story, it would fall into the same category of “Faerie Tales That Only Scholars and Enthusiasts Know About” that also contains stories like “The Juniper Tree” and “The Six Swans” and other stories I’m sure you haven’t heard of [I am ridiculously sad that "The Six Swans is one of these stories. Enough to want to tack another month onto this project to cover it. So save my sanity and go read it for yourself! - CG]
So what is it, exactly, about this story that so entranced Walt? Well, for all its flaws, the story actually lends itself very well to the type of movie Disney needed at this time. Disney had been putting out a number of animated shorts and he wanted to take the next step and make a full-length, fully animated feature film, something no one had ever done before.

So Walt needed to tread carefully here. At this point, animation was for those funny shorts people saw at the beginnings of their movies, between the news reel and feature film. (Or wherever they put it, I’m just naming a couple things you would see at the movies in those days.) There would need to be a fair amount of entertainment in this film. Now, if you haven’t watched this movie for a while, watch it again, and really pay attention to actual plot-driven aspects of the film versus the filler material.

We start with our opening narration, giving us the backstory in the form of a storybook, just like the two faerie tale animated features that would come in the fifties. We learn that Snow White is a princess and an orphan, and her wicked stepmother, the vain Evil Queen, forces her to work as a scullery maid, which as we see in a scene a few minutes later, she does without complaint. I mean, you’d think that, as a teenage girl with raging hormones, she’d be pitching a fit, saying things like, “You’re not my real mother!” and “You can’t make me!” and whatnot, but no, Snow White seems perfectly content to clean and clean, doing so with a song in her heart and smile on her face.

Okay. So Snow White is established as our pristine, pure young woman with no personality flaws whatsoever. How fascinating. Let’s look at our Evil Queen, who is actually the first character we see in this film, and represents a pretty scary element, especially for kids. I mean, for all that we chide Disney for cleaning things up and sanitizing them for kids, some of the films are scary as shit, and the Evil Queen pretty well set the tone for the villains that came after. Walt kind of had the same dichotic view of women that Perrault did at this point: you were either good and pure, or you were wicked and vain. (Note that these are, in fact, the only two women in the entire movie.) He would later add “comical and bumbling” to the list of female traits, but for now, it’s just these two.

So after establishing that the Evil Queen’s magic mirror has proclaimed that Snow White, not the Queen, is the “fairest in the land,” we have our first musical number with Snow White singing about her fondest wish is finding a man to marry. Again, how fascinating. The Prince in question happens to be riding by at the time, hears her song, climbs over the palace wall, and joins her in singing in a not-at-all creepy way, no really. Regardless, Snow White swoons at his manly, manly voice, and we have our love-at-first-sight moment.

So, now, the plot gets moving again, as the Evil Queen sends out the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart back in a box. Charming. The huntsman, seeing how sweet Snow White is (and, let’s be honest, as bland as her personality is, she’s incredibly likable), can’t kill her, and tells her to run away and never return. Snow White does so, and is so frightened by the shadows of the unfamiliar woods that she falls into a heap and cries. (Incidentally, the scene in the woods contains some seriously excellent bits of animation.) She awakens to find that, lo and behold, the shadows weren’t unfriendly at all! They were cute little bunnies and deer and birds who want to be her friends! Oh, happy day!

So the animal friends make sure the plot moves forward a bit by taking Snow White to abandoned and very messy house where she can clean. And thus, we have our second musical number, “Whistle While You Work,” and a little feature of Snow White and her animal friends cleaning the house. Notice that throughout this sequence, we see very little of Snow White herself. We hear her voice, of course, but the focus is mostly on what the animals are doing because, let’s face it, animals scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting are vastly more entertaining than a human being scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting.

It’s worth pointing out here that Snow White does have a pretty consistent personality trait. She’s very motherly, both in her desire to take care of others and her desire to make sure everything is clean. Say what you will about the implications regarding purity and domestication and all that, but it gives her something to care about, something to drive her character forward, unlike a certain princess who would come a couple decades later. *coughAuroracough*

Cut now to the real stars of the picture, the dwarves. Yes, the dwarves. I mean, really without the dwarves, people wouldn’t remember this picture. Snow White’s nice and all, but she’s just not a dynamic enough character to truly be memorable. So right about at the time when kids would have started getting bored with Snow White’s warbling and the cute antics of her animal friends, we’re introduced to the characters who make us laugh. Not only that, but we see with their opening song that these are the laborers, the ones who work hard in a mine, all day, every day. Consider that this movie, then, was made during the Great Depression, and we’re given a bunch of characters that the average moviegoer can relate to. It lifts up the common worker in a really great way, because the dwarves are the ultimate heroes of the story, not the handsome prince. Yes, the prince kisses Snow White awake, but it’s the dwarves who rush to the rescue and drive the Evil Queen off a cliff.

So the dwarves, like Snow White, sing as they work, and eventually march home to the familiar “Hi-Ho.” They arrive home to find that someone has broken in to their home, and after some comic antics, they find that it’s Snow White, the princess, who they of course have an immediate protective devotion to. (Except Grumpy, of course.) Snow White, because of her desire to take care of her new friends, offers to cook them a hot meal for once, but informs them--quite sternly, actually--that they’ll not get a “bite to eat” until they wash up . . . which they do in a particularly amusing musical scene, where they approach the water and soap as though they are things they’ve never seen before. Doc teaches them how to wash up, and then as a group, they force Grumpy, the only one who flat out refused to wash up, into the tub where they wash him as well.

This scene, it should be pointed out, is terribly amusing and does nothing to forward the plot. More on that in a moment.

So, we return to the Queen and the Hunter. The Queen now has the heart in a box, but discovers that it is not, in fact, Snow White’s heart, but the heart of a pig when the mirror tattles. So, she decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands and ventures down into her secret dungeon laboratory (yes, she has a secret dungeon laboratory) and mixes a potion that will effectively disguise her as an ugly old hag. (And lest the irony is lost on you, yes, she turns herself ugly so she can be considered pretty.) The scene of her mixing the potion with all sorts of evil magical brouhaha is probably one of my favorite bits of Disney animation. Anyone who thinks that Disney is all about feel good stories and light entertainment should take a look at this early scene. You see a person essentially using very dark magic, and the animation is put to good use here, as the scene is creepy as hell. I don’t think people really associated animation with this sort of darkness.

But back to the dwarves, who are spending the evening with a delightful musical romp in “The Dwarves’ Yodel Song,” or “The Silly Song.” The song has few words, no story, and really no point. It’s just the dwarves singing and dancing and generally goofing off as Snow White watches. It does nothing to move the plot forward and, in fact, brings the plot to a screeching halt. And yet, this is my absolute favorite song and scene in the movie. This song is just such fun, as we watch the dwarves doing what really makes them happy. Again, there’s that reliability with common workers, because the dwarves are basically just unwinding at the end of a long day of work. And there’s a great contrast between the life Snow White has with the dwarves and the life she had at the palace.

So, you might be noticing a pattern at this point in the story. Watch the “Whistle While You Work” scene. And now watch the washing up scene. And now the “Silly Song.” They don’t contribute much to the forwarding of the plot, they’re mostly entertainment based, and they could stand on their own, apart from the movie, and still be entertaining and complete. In other words, they’re a lot like the sort of animated shorts Walt Disney was known for up until this time. This is how Walt was able to tread that line between what animation was known for and what Disney was trying to do. In general, the good guys want the simplicities of life. Good work, food, a family, some music and dance, a loved one. Just a very simple life. The Evil Queen, on the other hand, is not content. she wants more than what she already has, and what she has is considerable seeing as how she’s, you know . . . the Queen. So she moves the plot forward so as to forward her own ambitions.

Once the dwarves have had their fun, they encourage Snow White to entertain them with a song, which she does, singing the iconic “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And yeah, I’m not wild about this as a general message for the movie, but again, it was a very different time. What Snow White gives us more than anything is hope. Her life, at the moment, is not in the best circumstances, and yet here she is, with continued hope that one day, she’ll be happy, with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. During the Great Depression when this movie was released, this was especially important to the people watching, who needed a bit of hope in their lives. The Prince isn’t just a romantic inclination, it’s a way out of a bad situation. The Prince in Cinderella is similar, which is why neither of them has much in the way of personalities. They’re ideals, rather than characters.

Next morning, the dwarves are off to work, leaving Snow White to take care of the house and make dinner for their return. And who should arrive, but the Evil Witch with a poisoned apple, which she convinces the gullible Snow White to take a bite of. The animal friends ride off to get the dwarves, and the dwarves--without a moment’s hesitation, which is more than can be said for them going to check on an intruder in their home OR wash up for dinner--ride to her rescue. Snow White’s already (allegedly) dead, but the dwarves chase the Queen off a cliff and then a rock falls on her. (Notice, they don’t actually do the killing, because they’re the good guys.) But Snow White is dead, the dwarves mourn her in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all animation, I mean SERIOUSLY! They put her in a glass coffin so people can look at her (vaguely creepy, but okay), the prince comes along, kisses her awake, they live happily ever after, etc. All this in about the span of five minutes.

Snow White was, in many ways, the movie that a lot of people needed at that time. It was a combination of an entertaining series of animated shorts and a story of good overcoming evil and hope overcoming a rotten situation. What we expect of a story today has changed. Filler material, however entertaining, is deemed unnecessary, we prefer characters to be more than absolutely good or absolutely evil, and plots need to be realistic and complex. And lest you worry, this isn’t a “movies aren’t the way they used to be and therefore they suck” post. I generally enjoy movies with the qualities listed above. But such a movie would not have played well in the thirties, and certainly not from a new animation studio trying to do a full length feature for the first time. Walt Disney knew how to balance pushing the envelope with what people wanted, and he did it very well. Add to that the entertaining music and the incredible animation, and it’s easy to see why this movie was and is so popular.

When it comes right down to it, though this is technically an adaptation of Snow White, the movie’s popularity has very little to do with the original story. Disney could have picked any other story and given it a similar treatment and it would have become just as popular. Snow White is a great example of evolution of storytelling, of how a classic (if mediocre) story can be made relevant to a brand new audience. That’s what Disney did.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fairest of All by Serena Valentino

Fairest of All by Serena Valentino

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: For anyone who’s seen Walt Disney’s Snow White, you’ll know that the Wicked Queen is one evil woman! After all, it’s not everyone who wants to cut out their teenage step-daughter’s heart and have it delivered back in a locked keepsake box. (And even if this sort of thing is a common urge, we don’t know many people who have acted upon it.)

Now, for the first time, we’ll examine the life of the Wicked Queen and find out just what it is that makes her so nasty. Here’s a hint: the creepy-looking man in the magic mirror is not just some random spooky visage—and he just might have something to do with the Queen’s wicked ways!

Type of Adaptation: Retelling with a perspective shift

Really, I could call this an adaptation of an adaptation, with a perspective shift, because the evil Queen in question here is very specifically Disney’s evil Queen. This book exists to show us her backstory, her character, how she became who she was. And it does so very well. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up, but let me tell you, I am entirely on board. This book was wonderful.

This is the story of the Queen. Just like in the movie, she is given no name. What she is given is a history. She is the daughter of a renowned mirror maker who has no love for her. As is revealed over the course of the narrative, this man is a Piece Of Work. The Queen’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father never forgave her for that. He hated his daughter, and made that hatred known. He called her ugly her entire life, made it clear that no one would ever want to be with her.

And so, she grew to believe it. She grew up believing herself to be ugly, avoiding the mirrors her father made, believing that she will never be loved. So when the king shows up to pick up a special mirror and calls her beautiful, the Queen believes that he is poking fun at her. He father calls her an enchantress, saying she must have bewitched the king because he would never care for her on his own.

Well, the son of a bitch dies, and the king finds the Queen and professes his love. And the Queen is determined to be a better parent than her father ever was. The King has a daughter, Snow White, and the Queen loves the girl dearly and deeply. She is determined that the girl will grow up happy, knowing stories of her real mother and how much she was, and still is, loved. And this is their happy family.

So how do we get from here to the story the movie tells? Well, a war certainly helps. The king goes off to fight, and I know what you’re thinking. He dies in battle, right? Well . . . yes, actually, but not for a while. At first, he’s just gone for long stretches of time. The Queen becomes increasingly lonely, as does Snow, but they have each other, so they make it through. But the isolation is there, and it calls questions to mind for the Queen – does he really love her if he’s constantly off fighting?

Also, the Queen has this mirror, given to her by her husband, made by her father, and she becomes convinced that she’s seeing a face in it that’s not her own. She tries to tell the king about it when he comes home from one war, and she tries to tell her closest friend Verona about it, but they both put it down to stress and exhaustion.

But of course, as readers and watchers of the Disney movie, we know it’s more than that. There is a face in the mirror, and it turns out that the face belongs to the Queen’s father, or more accurately, to his soul.

See, the King has these three creepy cousins who are always together and speak in tandem, and they stop by the palace once when the King is away at war and start freaking Snow out, talking about losing her in the woods, poisoning her, cutting out her heart, etc. The Queen gets righteously angry and has them sent from the palace grounds, but not before they’ve spilled both whose visage is in her mirror and how to call him forth.

And it’s when the Queen learns that the spirit is her father that the trouble starts. As cruel in death as he was in life, the Queen is determined to control her father’s voice, forcing him every day to tell her that she is the fairest in the land, as recompense for all the days of her childhood when he told her how ugly she was.

But he gets his own back. He is still cruel, and he tells her of the death of her husband, taunting her for letting it happen.

When her husband dies, the Queen starts the descent into, well, madness, honestly. All she can see is how loving has hurt her. And when she looks at Snow, all she can see is her dead husband, just like her father before her. She isolates herself, refusing to see or speak to anyone but the mirror. As much as she thinks she’s forcing him to praise her, the truth is, she becomes more and more dependent on hearing those words every day – that she is the fairest of them all, and no one compares to her beauty. That’s all she has left.

And then there are the three creepy women who keep poking around, who leave the Queen a dungeon workshop full of spellbooks. She becomes more and more obsessed with beauty and magic, slowly eliminating everyone the mirror says has the potential to be more beautiful than she. She has nightmares, too, in which Snow White is killed by her hand, her heart taken out and eaten.

She has lucid moments, moments where she realizes what is happening, moments when she is horrified, when she tries to destroy or get rid of the mirror. But it always ends up back in her chamber. She can’t escape it, because it’s her father’s soul trapped inside, and her father’s soul is linked unchangeably to her soul.

And then, Snow White falls in love, with a prince who happens to be passing by, and the Queen is incensed. How dare Snow White let another man take her father’s place in her heart? How dare she give herself over to love when love has harmed so many so greatly? The Queen separates the lovers, but they find each other again anyway, and so Snow White is punished, put into rags and forced to clean the castle as a servant.

Now, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Disney’s Snow White, but the way they work in these little details is great, to my memory. The highlights of the movie that I remember are all there – Snow White in her rags, Snow White with her bluebirds, the skull of poison on the apple, the box with the heart and sword clasp. The attention to detail is wonderful. And I love that it is always love for Snow White that prompts the Queen’s lucid moments and helps her drive back the darkness that is consuming her.

So how does she get to the point where she can order a huntsman to kill her stepdaughter? Those three sisters again. She drinks a potion she is told will help her control the mirror better, and instead, it quenches that voice inside her head, and now she sees Snow only as a threat. And here the movie plays out in the narrative as expected.

The huntsman fails to kill the girl, the Queen disguises herself and makes the poison apple, she heads to the woods and she kills Snow. And then, she needs, so desperately needs, to return to the mirror and hear it tell her that she is the fairest, but the three sisters appear again, taunting her. She begs for the spell to undo her disguise, and they tell her there is none.

And then the enormity of what she has done hits her, and she comes back to herself. Knowing that she will never again be the most beautiful, she is able to see clearly what she has become. And she knows the dwarfs are after her, and she knows if she climbs the cliff, death is what awaits her. But that’s what she wants. Because that’s all that there is left.

And she dies, and becomes the soul in the mirror. And she sees Snow one last time, and apologizes, once more the mother that Snow so dearly loved.

I kind of adore this book. Let’s go to the checklist.

Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? I was all prepared to say no, given that this was Disney’s Snow White. But Valentino managed it. We don’t see a lot of her, true enough, but what we do see is an empowered young woman with an exceptional capacity for love and forgiveness.

Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Absolutely. That’s what the entire book was about. And it was done so, so well.

Understand how poison and murder work? Disney actually did a decent job of this. I do like that, in Disney’s version, it’s an enchantment not straight poison because that really does make more sense.

Fill in the background? Beautifully. The prince made his appearance sooner, we got the backstory of the King and Queen, we understood how she came to work magic, we got an explanation for the mirror. Just beautifully done.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA

Summary: In the kingdom of Ayortha, who is the fairest of them all? Certainly not Aza. She is thoroughly convinced that she is ugly. What she may lack in looks, though, she makes up for with a kind heart, and with something no one else has-a magical voice. Her vocal talents captivate all who hear them, and in Ontio Castle they attract the attention of a handsome prince - and a dangerous new queen.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So, we haven’t yet talked about Gail Carson Levine’s utterly masterful Ella Enchanted, which is really one of the reasons I read fairy tale adaptations at all, because we haven’t gotten to Cinderella yet. It’s coming. I promise. But we’re not there yet.

But this book came later, a companion novel with two crossover characters set in a different country in the same universe, and man was I excited when this book came out. And rereading it was delightful, going back and visiting one of these fairy tale worlds that I love so dearly. And if anyone can improve the fairy tale of Snow White, it’s Gail Carson Levine.

Because here’s what I love about how Levine approaches fairy tales. She takes a common glaring issue of the original story and works it into her narrative. For Cinderella, it’s the question of why Cinderella never tried to defy her stepmother. For Snow White, though, it’s the point that if a girl actually had white skin, black hair, and blood red lips, she’d look pretty hideous, actually.

And that gives us Aza, a girl unlike any other in her kingdom. She is ugly and sticks out like a sore thumb – too tall, too big, too different. People stare, people point, people whisper. Doubly hard is the fact that she doesn’t know her origin. She was left in the bedroom of an inn as an infant, and the innkeeper and his wife took her in and raised her as their own daughter.

Aza may not be pretty, but she has the most beautiful voice anyone has ever heard, and one day, she discovers a special ability. She can throw her voice, to make it sound as if it’s coming from other places, and she can imitate anyone else’s voice and throw those, too. She calls it ‘illusing,’ and she keeps it a secret from everyone.

Through a completely random set of circumstances, Aza finds herself invited to accompany a prickly duchess to the king’s wedding. Basically, the duchess won’t take no for an answer, so away Aza goes. The new Queen is young, and a foreigner, and Aza feels sympathy for her, knowing so well what it’s like to be an outsider. She doesn’t think she’ll have opportunity to meet the new Queen, but she might as well go and see the palace. So you know where this is going, right?

The country has mixed feelings about their new Queen, mainly stemming from the fact that no one knows whether or not she can sing because she has apparently lost her voice. This is a deal because Ayortha is a kingdom based entirely around song. They have songs for everything, hold Sings instead of Balls, even sing half their conversations to one another. So having a Queen who cannot sing would reflect badly on the kingdom. And having a sore throat on your wedding day is a terrible omen.

But everyone smiles and sings and pretends to ignore it. Aza is terrified to be presented to the king and his new Queen and his nephew the prince, but the king and prince are both very kind, setting her at ease and praising her for her voice. And the Queen seems to like her as well.
Aza enjoys her time at the palace. She spends her time with the duchess when ordered, but has freedom to wander otherwise. One afternoon, she visits the Hall of Song and finds herself partnered with Prince Ijori for a composing game. He mistakes her for a lady and is very impressed with her, and she never gets the chance to explain that she’s a commoner, so when she does finally tell him, he’s a bit disappointed in the deception. He gets over it pretty quickly, due to the circumstance, but this will become relevant later on.

Ivi, the Queen, is young and silly and pretty, but it’s when she overhears Aza practicing her illusing in a courtyard that she becomes dangerous. Though that comes later. For now, she just flatters Aza and shares confidences with her, and offers to make Aza her lady-in-waiting.

So everything seems to be going well, and then the bad stuff happens. Namely the king gets hit in the head with a stray iron ring at an outdoor entertainment, meaning that Ivi, young and silly and having no understanding of her kingdom and its customs, is now its sole ruler.

And then things just get worse and worse. Ivi proves to be selfish and tyrannical. She demands that Aza illuse a voice for her, so she can be beloved by her kingdom. She dissolves the King’s council, saying she has her own counselor to advise her. Even the tiniest slight offered against her is met with punishment of the worst sort – imprisonment, banishment, etc. Ijori and Aza do their best to talk sense into Ivi, but to no avail. And in singing Ivi a voice, Aza is continuing to deceive not only the kingdom, but Ijori, with whom she is, of course, falling in love. And she worries constantly, because this isn’t just about the deception. Singing is a serious business in Ayortha, and faking the Queen’s voice could be harming the progress of the ailing king.

Things get progressively bad – Ivi refuses to send grain to the drought-ridden south, she releases the palace songbirds into the wild to get rid of them, she’s flirting constantly with Ijori and her personal guard, and Ijori tells Aza in secret that a rebellion is forming among the common people. He confides in her that as long as his uncle lives, his loyalty is with the crown, but that if his uncle should die, he will oppose the Queen. Aza agrees, and doesn’t know what to hope for. She wants the king to live, but she wants also to be free of her deception.

It doesn’t help that, because she’s the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, she’s getting the same disrespectful treatment as the Queen herself. Add to that the way she looks, and it’s really no wonder that Aza starts to obsess about finding a beauty spell. She wants so badly to be beautiful, or to at least not look as she does, a desire helped along by a reflection of herself that she caught once in a secret mirror of Ivi’s.

And then Ijori confesses his love for her, and I wish this had been built up a little bit more because it happens really suddenly. Not as suddenly as the love at first sight of dead girl in the original story, but still pretty sudden. We know that Aza has these feelings, but Ijori hasn’t given much sign of them, not to that extent. But whatever. It’s minor.

But then Aza gets caught illusing, and the shit kinda hits the fan. She tries to tell everyone that Ivi forced her into it, made threats against her and her family if she didn’t, and she thinks for a moment that they will understand, but then the Choirmaster reveals his big Theory: that Aza’s looks combined with her powerful voice can mean only one thing – she is part ogre, and therefore cannot be trusteed. Ogres are the villains of this world, with incredible powers of persuasion in their voices. The idea that Aza might be part ogre is a death sentence.

Everyone turns on her, everyone including Ijori. Her words mean nothing, and in her despair, the face in the mirror comes to her again, offering her a vial marked ‘beauty.’ She thinks if she can make herself beautiful, this all might go away, but she’s smart enough not to down the whole thing. She dilutes it and only drinks half, despite the urging of the mirror.

Everyone is shocked when they return to her, and thinking this is more trickery, throw her in the dungeon. But not before Ivi has time to see her and recognize that a) Aza is more beautiful than she is now, and b) she’s spoken to the mirror and drunk the potion and that is not good. Aza must be removed.

So, it took us a while, but here we are, at Snow White. It’s a little tweaked, but now it’s there. A beautiful girl, hunted for her beauty by a jealous and fearful queen.

Because Aza is hunted. Ivi’s guard appears to break her out of jail. His orders are to kill her, but he wasn’t told of her transformation, and he’s so stunned, he can’t kill her. Instead, he agrees to help her escape. They head for the Gnome Caverns, for it was foretold early on that Aza would visit them once her appearance had changed.

In the Gnomes’ home, she is welcomed, and she earns her keep by composing songs for the gnomes, for they have no music of their own, but dearly love it. And far from believing that she holds ogre blood in her veins, the Gnome chief believes that she has gnomic blood. Her size and coloring give it away.

She is safe with the gnomes, but she can’t stop thinking about the world she left behind. She yearns for news, and in lack of it, she dwells on all that has happened to her – and Ijori’s mistrust most of all. Everyone at the palace believes her to be dead, but before Ijori learned that, he wrote her a heartfelt letter which the gnomes manage to get to her. In it, he tears himself apart with guilt, saying that after spending some time with his thoughts, he realized that Ivi’s version of events didn’t make sense, that if Aza had wanted to manipulate him, she could have done a much better job of it, etc. And Aza immediately forgives him.

I have a bit of a problem with this, to be honest. I’m all for the forgiveness, and I buy his explanation entirely, and for the most part, I like what their relationship becomes, but it’s just a little too easy. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the betrayal and moving past it. But again. Minor point.

Anyway, down with the gnomes, Aza is going crazy for a bit of human food. Gnomes eat only root vegetables, and Aza would give anything for fruit or bread or even an apple, which it has been stated she hates. And so, who should appear in the marketplace but an old gnome woman selling human food??

Now me? I’d be a bit suspicious at that. But then, I also haven’t been existing on carrots and potatoes and beets for weeks, so maybe it’s not my place to judge. But anyway, surprise, surprise, it’s Ivi in disguise, the apple is poisoned, and it lodges in her throat, and she collapses. She’s not dead, not quite – the tiniest gap is allowing air in and out, but she’s pretty near death, and that’s when her spirit gets whisked away to —

– Ivi’s magic mirror! And she’s not alone. No, she’s joined by the Skulni, the creature who lives inside the mirror and has been manipulating Ivi for so long, the creature who tricked Aza into drinking the potion that made her beautiful. Because he’s prisoner, trapped in the mirror by a really dumb fairy who causes all sorts of trouble, and his deal is that he gets to go on a vacation every time someone who drinks his beauty potion dies. Then their spirit inhabit the mirror for a time, and he goes free. So basically, his whole life is about getting people to drink the potion and then figuring out how to make them die. Pleasant chap, really.

But the thing is, Skulni can’t leave the mirror. Either because Aza’s not really dead or because she didn’t drink the entire potion, and so, she has, inadvertently, trapped him there, and she is able to manipulate the mirror so that she can speak to Ivi when Ivi returns from the Gnome Caverns. As much damage as Ivi has done, it becomes clear to Aza that she really was just a young, silly, frightened girl who got taken in and used.

Armed with this knowledge, knowing it’s the only way to help Ivi, Aza breaks the mirror, freeing the trapped Skulni, but also breaking his spell over Ivi. And at the same time, Ijori is led to Aza in the Caverns and frees the apple lodged in her throat.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king has woken and is recovering, and Aza tells the whole of her tale to him, while a much subdued and physically different Ivi sits in and confirms the whole telling. In the end, the king agrees that something must be done so that Ivi can never wreck harm in the same way again, though he loves her dearly. So he agrees to abdicate in three years and let his nephew take the throne, and in that time, the Queen will spend her days at the summer palace.

And Ijori and Aza marry and it’s all happy fun times for all.

I love the way in which the narrative is spun a little differently here, but with all the necessary elements still worked in. Let’s to the checklist.

Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? Yes, but what I love is that Aza is still noticeably flawed. She longs for beauty, obsesses over it, and it’s not until nearly the end of the novel that she realizes that she has been as vocal a critic about her appearance as anyone else, and that her pursuit of beauty is what caused many of the problems she faced. She’s smart and clever and we like her, but she is still very flawed, which is as it should be because it gave her somewhere to go.

Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Yes. I love that this Queen isn’t inherently evil. She’s just young and scared and silly, and another villain is feeding off of that and using her. She goes after Aza yes because she’s prettier, but also because she knows the secret, and that puts Ivi in danger. It’s beautifully intricate.

Understand how poison and murder work? Eh, okay. See, again, like in the original, I’m confused about how this went down – was the apple poisoned, enchanted, or did it just get caught in her throat? I really don’t know, and it’s the one part of the novel I wish had been done better. If your windpipe is blocked, then it’s blocked and you suffocate. If it’s only mostly blocked, you don’t lie in a coma for three days. But if it’s poison or an enchantment, then why did it disappear after the apple was dislodged? I am confused about the apple, is my point, which means, sadly, no check.

Fill in the background? I love this world of Levine’s. I love it in Ella Enchanted, and I love it here. Her range of species is so diverse and well-drawn, and the traditions based around song? Lovely. But my favorite part about this novel? That we don’t discover who Aza is in the end. Remember, she wasn’t the innkeeper’s biological daughter. Someone left her in that room. But we never find out who. She’s never revealed to be a secret princess or the illegitimate daughter of nobility or anything like that. We’re left not knowing. And I love it.

Beautifully rendered, and lovely to reread.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen

Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen

Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA

Summary: With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.

Type of adaptation: Historical recontextualization

So, let me tell you what I love about this book. I love how ambiguous it is. I love how seamlessly Jane Yolen has adapted this story in the superstitious subconscious that was early twentieth century rural American life. Because yeah, if you want to, you can read this book as if it’s saying that magic and witches and charms and curses are, in fact, real. But you can also read it in a completely different way, that the power of the charms evidenced in the story is nothing more than coincidence and superstition. This is a thing that I love about this book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our main character is a girl born to schoolage sweethearts who got married young by today’s standards, but not so much by the standards of the time in which they lived. And our main character’s mother loved fairy tales and folk tales, and so when her daughter was born with red skin and black hair and the white caul still over her head, she decided to name her Snow in Summer because she was reminded so forcefully of Snow White from the tales.
They call her Summer, and for a time, her life is perfectly happy. But then, when Summer is seven, her mother dies in childbirth and the baby dies with her, and her father becomes despondent and hardly able to look at Summer because she so resembles his dead wife. And the only reason life goes on for Summer is because of her Cousin Nancy, her godmother (and here’s another thing I love – giving Snow White a godmother. Because it’s almost the fairy tale as we know it. But not quite).

Nancy takes care of Summer while her father is too lost in grief to do so, because she loves the child, but also because she loves the father, and they get by, this strange, cobbled together family. They get by, and things are all right.

Until one day when Papa goes up onto the mountain and comes home with a bride, a civilized woman who no one really trusts. She is Stepmama, and she is the worst kind of villain because she preys and uses the desires that people had before she arrived.

Once Stepmama arrives in the story, she and Cousin Nancy both have their chance to speak, little interludes between chapters, and Yolen does this very well. In this instance, their voices help round out the story because Summer, called Snow by Stepmama, is a child, and she sees with a child’s innocence. But Cousin Nancy is an adult, and she sees what a child misses. And getting that insight into Stepmama’s mind helps us see just how villainous this woman truly is.

Because on the surface, she isn’t. On the surface, she might be a bit cold and distant, but she wants what’s best for Snow. She has to be stern because Snow was never brought up properly. She has to be strict because Snow needs guidance from a firm hand.

And really, what is heartbreaking about this is seeing Snow slowly start to buy into it as well. She is so desperate for a mother, and Stepmama shows her just enough tenderness and just enough love to make Snow want it all the more, and in time, she comes to believe that she is naughty and that she deserves to be asked to do the things her stepmother asks.

But through Stepmama’s interludes, we know that she considers herself to be a witch, that she learned the Craft at the hands of the only man she ever loved, that she is bringing Snow up to be a vessel, to steal seven years of her life and teach her the Craft when she becomes a woman.

Snow’s worst punishment comes when she goes poking around in Stepmama’s room and she discovers the mirror, a mirror with its own face, who will answer questions that are asked (okay, so maybe not everything can be explained away by superstition). Snow knows from the tales she’s read that questions of a magical nature have to be asked carefully and sparingly. And so the first question that she asks is whether or not she will ever see her mother again.

And here’s what I don’t like about this book: the mirror says yes, she’ll see her mother again twice. But she never actually does. It’s like this just kinda got forgotten by the time the story’s end rolled around, and that, unfortunately, is not a unique failing of Jane Yolen’s longer works.

Anyway, Stepmama catches her, and that’s when Snow’s life really becomes unbearable. She is forced to do all the household chores, and is punished when they aren’t completed well enough, and they never are. She is fed scraps and poorly clothed, and finally Cousin Nancy steps in.

Cousin Nancy, partly because of her love for Summer’s father, partly because she might possibly be a good witch kinda, has never trusted Stepmama, not once, and now, she’s bound and determined to protect Summer in any way that she can.

So she sneaks Summer protection charms – garlic for her window and rowan for her door, and the caul from her birth to be worn about her neck in a pouch. With these things, Cousin Nancy says, Stepmama cannot hurt her.

Not directly, perhaps, but when Snow becomes a woman, Stepmama takes her to her church, to see if Snow can learn the Craft as Stepmama hopes. But there is still too much fire and good in Snow, and she fights against what she sees, and that night, rebels for the first time. She sneaks in to see the mirror again, and asks who holds the most danger for her. She is told to beware the Hunter.

And the next day, Stepmama takes her up the mountain and passes her off to a young man named Hunter, who has very specific instructions – do what he wants with her, but at the end of it, cut out her heart and kill her. And Hunter, out of love for Stepmama, tries to do that very thing.

But Snow thinks fast and is clever and manages to get away, running into the woods and disappearing. She is clever and resourceful, and keeps herself alive until she finds a house standing empty, a house that belongs to six German dwarfs, who agree to take her in and protect her.

Stepmama finds out that Snow is still alive because she boasts to the mirror of the girl’s end and is informed otherwise. And I love that this isn’t about beauty – it’s not about being the fairest of them all. It’s about using Snow’s life to continue her own youth and then getting rid of the girl who has seen too much. But it’s not a grown woman’s jealousy of a seven year old, you know?

And she comes to the house of the dwarfs, disguised as a poor old woman, to whom Snow offers help because she acts faint and ill. Snow specifically does not invite the woman into the house, but Stepmama makes it in by pretending to have gotten confused, at which point, Snow feels guilty asking her to leave. No poisoned apple here, but a viper’s bite to Snow’s ankle. However, she recognizes her Stepmama as the snake bites her, and manages to get a few good whacks to the head in with a frying pan, killing both the witch and the snake before succumbing to the poison. 

And it’s not the kiss of a prince or the jostling of a glass coffin that wakes her – it’s dwarf number seven (who is brother but not actually a dwarf), coming home from university just at the right moment and knowing enough about snakebites to suck the poison out of the wound and save Summer’s life.

I like the way this novel was grounded in the real world, and in the traditions and beliefs of Appalachia. It worked for this fairy tale very well. And I like the interjection of other voices (though hearing from one of the dwarfs at the end was a little jarring, and I didn’t like that she wrote the German accent out phonetically in his section) because they’re not overwhelming, and they don’t take away from this being Snow in Summer’s story. I do think that her name is dumb, but hey. So is “Snow White.”

And I’ll admit, this suffers some classic Jane Yolen full-length novel flaws (which I hate pointing out because I so adore Yolen as a short story writer!) – the pacing of the end is not great, it feels like she had to rush and squeeze it in, and elements are introduced and then disappear. But overall the voice and tone and adaptation were done very well, so I don’t have much to complain about.

To the checklist!

Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? Yes. Don’t get me wrong, Snow is still very much a child, but Yolen makes that work in her favor. We see her overcoming a lot of what held her back when she was eleven as she grows older and realizes that this is not how families work. And she is resourceful and clever and cautious – she’s just a bit overly kind in the end. But not a mindless ninny, by any stretch.

Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Yes. She was such a fascinating and well-drawn character.

Understand how poison and murder works? Yeah, much more believable here, and I’m choosing to ignore the niggling voice telling me that I think sucking poison out of a snakebite is a myth . . .

Fill in the background? Beautifully. The father was under an enchantment, too weak and besot to step in. The backdrop of small town Appalachia fit this story a lot better than I thought it would going in. So major kudos there.

Not without its flaws, but well done.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Snow by Tracy Lynn

Snow by Tracy Lynn

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: The Duchess Jessica's childhood began with a tragedy: her mother's death. Her father, heartbroken at the loss of his beloved wife, could not bear to raise the child. Largely ignored, Jessica spent the first eleven years of her life running free on the family estate, cared for only by the servants.

Then her father decides to remarry, bringing an end to Jessica's independence. At first her new stepmother just seems overly strict. But as Jessica grows into a beautiful young woman, it becomes clear that her stepmother is also wildly -- and murderously -- jealous of her.

Jessica escapes to London. Going by the name Snow to hide from her family, she falls in love with an odd band of outcasts who accept her into their makeshift family. But when her stepmother appears in the city, repentant and seeking her forgiveness, Jessica will have to decide whom to trust...with her life.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling with historical recontextualization

So, I had a moment of panic earlier today that I would, on day one, be forced to fail at my resolution. I thought I had left my copy of the novel at work, which would have been bad, as I hadn’t yet finished it.

But! Turns out I’d just removed it from my bag when I got home and forgotten completely that I’d done it because I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached.

Anyway, crisis averted, book finished, and here I am, ready to review!

Snow is the only contribution that Tracy Lynn made to the Once Upon a Time series, but after rereading this book, I wish she’d offered more. I really like what she’s done with this story, and the context she’s put it in.

Our king and queen are, here, a duke and duchess, of Kenigh in Wales during the reign of Queen Victoria. They married for love, and are still very much in it, but they desperately want a child. Here, I like how Lynn plays with the wishing on a drop of blood bit – the duchess finds herself daydreaming about children, with her dark hair and their father’s fine looks, but then catches herself and changes the wish – for kindness, for goodness, for generosity.

And it’s nature taking its course rather than any sort of wish magic that eventually wins a baby. Unfortunately, as often happened, the mother died in childbirth, and as the child was a girl, the duke projected his resentment onto her. She had taken his love, and hadn’t even had the decency to be an heir to balance out the loss.

And so, young Jessica grows up in the kitchens, with the servants, and without much in the way of supervision. Every once in a while, her father will be reminded that he has a daughter, and that’s when things become unbearable for Jessica, because that’s when she has to wear gowns and stay in her room away from her friends. But eventually, the duke forgets about her again, and her life resumes.

But the duke still needs an heir, and so eventually, he is forced to marry again – a widow who is not a witch, but a scientist, a practice that was likely as frowned upon in Victorian Wales as dark magic was in the world of the fairy tale.

Arriving to the estate at the same time as Lady Anne is a young Scottish bard, hired by the duke as a present for his new wife. Lady Anne will serve as Alan’s patron as he continues practicing his music. He’s super excited, until he understands exactly what his job is going to entail. See, the first time he goes to play for the Lady Anne privately, he doesn’t play any music at all. Instead, she forces him to wear a charm that turns out to be enchanted with science (it makes sense in the novel, trust me) to keep his silence and her secrets. She makes him hold her giant heavy mirror while she admires herself and asks him who’s the fairest. He’s enchanted to speak the truth. The minstrel is the mirror, and I love it.

Meanwhile, Jessica has a mother for the first time in her memory, and what I like about this relationship is that it’s not automatically an evil stepmother situation. It’s a lot more subtle than the original. Anne takes an interest in Jessica. She does what she can to school and teach the girl about a woman’s place in the world, and it isn’t until Jessica officially becomes a woman for the first time that Anne starts to see her as a rival.

Lynn does a great job portraying the coming of age part of the story, as Jessica and her friends from the kitchens transition from children into teenagers, and the scene where Jessica is supposed to be presented for the first time in a party just for her is harsh and heart-breaking and very well done in terms of this transition. She slips away to visit new puppies in the kennel, and on her way back, she’s mistaken for a servant girl by one of the young noblemen there. He attempts to have his way with her, and when she runs to Anne and her father, she’s told that it’s her fault, that if she hadn’t let him think her a servant, it wouldn’t have happened.

Turns out this is the perfect excuse for Anne to exact some revenge on Jessica for her budding beauty – she says that if Jessica insists on acting like a servant instead of a duchess, then that is how she’ll be treated, and Jessica spends the next two years of her life in isolation, forbidden to talk to anyone, cooking and cleaning and serving the household.

Now, apparently, this changes her appearance entirely, something I’m not quite sure about. She pales and her hair turns black, and that’s why people start calling her Snow. This seems . . . questionable to me. I mean, I’m evidence that hair gets darker when you’re not outside a lot, but going from “copper-brown” to black? I don’t think that’s a thing. But it’s minor, and hey. I could be wrong.

Anyway, she manages to secretly maintain a friendship with Alan through her servitude, and it’s a good thing she does because as it turns out, Anne is getting more and more desperate for a child. Alan’s seen some pretty horrifying things he can’t talk about, but when Anne starts to talk about cutting out and eating Jessica/Snow’s heart, he care enough about it to weaken the enchantment enough to warn her to get away.

And away she goes, not into the woods, but into London, losing herself in the city as Snow White of the tale did in the forest. It’s a parallel I adore because on the surface, it seems so opposite, but in essence, it really isn’t.

Not knowing how cities work, Snow is robbed almost immediately, forcing her to take shelter in a tucked-away hollow someone made into a home and then abandoned.

Except, not entirely. No, the hidey-hole still belongs to someone, and she is not at all happy about finding Snow there. Nor is Snow terribly at ease when she learns that she has been discovered by a girl who is half-human and half-cat and a boy who is half-human and half-sparrow. She’s even less enthused when she learns they’ll have to take her to their boss.

The boss turns out to be a half-human, half-rat named Chauncey. Two other hybrid creatures round out our band of dwarfs – Raven and the Mouser, and I’ll let you put two and two together there. They call themselves The Lonely Ones, and they roam the streets of London at night, making a living as pickpockets and cut-purses, “miners” as they call themselves, of the rich of Londontown.

And Snow quickly becomes one of them. She doesn’t join in the thieving, but she cooks and cleans and is far more at home with that band of outcasts that she ever was as a duchess.

But back at the estate, Anne has learned that Snow is still alive, and this fact is dangerous to Anne. If Snow is alive, Snow can talk about what Anne tried to do to her. If Snow is alive, it could ruin her. Now, Anne has learned, with her scientific magic, how to use one mirror to see through any, and it so happens that Snow has a small mirror. Anne sees her in the hideout, with Cat. And so, Anne concocts a plan and heads for London, and Alan, who has been fighting against the enchantment, is able to escape, though he can’t break the coercion entirely.

Anne sends an accomplice to the hideout. Snow isn’t an idiot in this version, so when someone comes knocking but doesn’t use the secret knock, she knows not to open the door. And when the woman cries out that she’s collecting for the orphanage to have Christmas dinner, Snow still waits for the woman to leave before following her to give a few coins.

But Anne knows her step-daughter a bit too well. The old woman mentions the Kenigh orphanage, set up by the duchess as recompense. When Snow asks what she means, the old woman tells her of the duches who went crazy and tried to kill her stepdaughter in a fit of madness. The duke found out, she said, and the duchess was sent away to a sanitarium. But now she has been cured and repented and is in London, trying to move on with her life.

And this thought eats away at Snow – the idea that her stepmother might be cured, that she might be able to go home and have a loving family and find a place for the Lonely Ones. And so she sends her stepmother a letter, arranging a time to meet – in public, surrounded by people, for a short span of time. Again, because Snow is not an idiot.

Further evidence of Snow’s intelligence, she leaves a just in case note for the Lonely Ones. She intends to be back before they wake, but she leaves a note telling where she’s gone, on the off chance she doesn’t come back.

And she goes to meet her stepmother, who very nearly has Snow convinced that she has changed. And I love that we see Snow’s thought process, all the things she wouldn’t have believed if Anne had presented them in a different way. But still, she is cautious, careful. She arranges a second meeting and returns home.

All has not gone quite as planned there, however, because Raven woke early and found Snow’s note, and he’s really upset that she didn’t tell them. Not because they would have stopped her, but because they could have shadowed her and kept any trouble from happening. I love the relationship between these two – you’re supposed to, spoilers. But he’s exactly the kind of person Snow needs to slowly start to counteract all the crappy people who have been in her life up to that point.

But yeah, come the day Snow has arranged to meet her stepmother again, it is revealed that as smart as Snow has been, Anne’s been one step ahead of her. Welcoming Snow into her apartment, she convinces Snow to take hold of a golden orb, and then turns on some sciency-magic that’s supposed to drain Snow of her youth? Or stop her aging? Or something? I’m not sure, but it goes wrong. Raven and Cat, who followed Snow this time, burst in long enough for Snow to warn them that Anne is on the way to their hideout, and then Snow collapses.

And cannot be wakened. She isn’t breathing, she has no heartbeat, and yet, she’s warm and still alive. To keep her safe, the Lonely Ones put her in a glass cabinet and search for a way to break the enchantment. For two years, they search. Eventually, Alan joins their party to aid them in their goal, and Alan and Raven discover the Clockwork Man, who lives under London and is fascinated by sciency-magic. He gives them the key to waking Snow, for the price of Raven’s feathers.

There’s some fantastic misdirection here, where they meet a young duke at the Clockwork Man’s and have to take him back to the lair. He recognizes Snow as Jessica, and so when she is awoken from her slumber with a jolt of electricity and remembers nothing, he is the one who takes her back to her father’s estate. Her prince, in other words.

Because Anne was super crafty. Even when her magic machine failed, it still failed in a way as to take Jessica out of the picture. And even when that was reversed, it prevented Jessica from remembering her life, her friends, or all that Anne had done to her.

And just when you think that’s going to be it, that the duke will propose and Jessica will marry him, the Lonely Ones and Alan turn up at the estate in time for Jessica’s masquerade ball. They’ve been back to the Clockwork Man, and Raven has the answer to restoring Snow’s memories. But it turns out he doesn’t need them, because seeing him again, speaking with him again, in the guise of a full-blown raven, triggers their return. There’s a cheesy line about true love undoing the enchantment, Jessica turns the magic done on her back on her stepmother, and it’s happily ever after for all.

Let’s head to the checklist.

Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? Check and check. Snow is wonderful. She is smart, and more than that, has lots of common sense. She’s a bit naive, but she makes up for it. Not once did she make me roll my eyes.

Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? I think we’re supposed to believe that Anne is a bit unhinged, and yeah, I buy that. But even more than that, she’s repressed by a society that won’t let her be a scientist. She’s restricted in the way all women were back then – be beautiful or be a mother, and if possible, be both. Anne couldn’t be a mother, and she was getting older and losing her beauty. And Jessica was just the nearest thing. It’s not as strong as it could be, but it gets a check.

Understand how poison and murder work? Yeah. See, what the original never did was talk about the apple being enchanted. It was just a poisoned apple, not an enchanted one. Maybe that’s nit-picking as it’s widely understood to be enchanted, but it’s gotta be stated. Here, it was. The “apple” was enchanted, and that’s why it worked.

Fill in the background? I love so much of what Lynn has done with this story. I love setting it against Victorian London, I love the way she explained the Lonely Ones (they were products of Anne’s experimenting to create a child), I love how science replaced the idea of dark magic. I’m still not satisfied with the father’s role in all this and why he seemed to care and know so little, but the rest of it? Was done very well.

All in all, an excellent adaptation.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (According to Cassie)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (According to Cassie)

So, basically, there’s a queen who can’t have a kid, which is the start of about twelve dozen fairy tales, and half of them continue like this: the queen in question then pricks her finger on a needle and wishes on the drops of blood that she’ll have a child. Because that’s totally how infertility and conception work. Anyway, in this case, the queen specifically wants a child with hair as black as the wood of the window, skin as white as the snow around her, and lips as red as the blood from her finger. Clearly a queen with a high amount of creativity. Evidence: when her daughter is born to these specifications, the girl is named ‘Snow White.’ Personally, I feel we should all start naming our children according to their complexion types: Slightly Ivory, Deep Chocolate, Vaguely Cinnamon. Seems like a solid choice.

Anyway, because this is a fairy tale, the queen gives birth to little Snow White and promptly dies.

A year later, the king marries again, and, once more, because this is a fairy tale, the woman he marries is cold, cruel, vain, and vindictive woman with absolutely no affection for her stepdaughter. Her biggest thing is that she has to be the most beautiful – she can’t stand the idea of anyone else being prettier than she is. She even has this mirror specifically for the purpose of keeping tabs on all the people in the world and reassuring her that she’s still number one in looks. Clearly, she wasn’t married for political reasons.

But Snow White was born from a wish-granting drop of blood, therefore, she will one day be more beautiful than her Queen. And that day comes when Snow White is seven years old, which doesn’t have any sort of creepy implications of all. I mean, seriously. Seven, and the most beautiful woman in the entire land? Really??

The Queen’s hatred toward Snow White from that day forward, and she keeps asking the mirror, just to see, just to check. You know, because maybe she’ll hit puberty early and turn totally ugly overnight, it’s possible.

So, finally, the Queen goes, “I can’t take it anymore!” and summons her huntsman to take the child into the forest, kill her, and bring the Queen back her heart. Now, depending on the version you read, she either wants to keep it as a trophy or eat it. Personally, I can’t decide which of these is more disturbing.

The huntsman obeys and has his knife in the air ready to strike this seven-year-old down, but she says, “Hey, could you not kill me please?” I like to imagine puppy eyes were involved, especially since we hear that her beauty was involved in stilling his axe. The huntsman says, “Yeah, okay,” and lets her go free. Though he doesn’t have a lot of faith in her survival time; after all, she’s seven and he’s leaving her on her own in the wilderness, but as long as her death’s not directly on his hands, it’s fine.

Well, she stumbles away, and he goes and kills some other animal and cuts out its heart to bring back to the Queen, and because she has no idea what a human child’s heart looks like compared to a doe’s or a boar’s or what have you, his plan works!

Meanwhile, Snow White manages not to get herself killed in the forest, and stumbles upon a cottage in the middle of the woods. Because she was raised on the same system of manners as Goldilocks, she goes on in and makes herself at home. Seriously, this part echoes Goldilocks pretty closely – she eats their food, sits at their table, and tries all their beds until she finds one that suits her. Then she falls asleep, and when the dwarfs who own the cottage come home and discover that their dishes have been used and their food eaten, they’re understandably upset (and spend a long time waiting for each of their number to point out something that is out of place) – until they see how beautiful Snow White is.

Seriously. I mean, I know a lot of cute seven-year-olds, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never met one that elicits this response in everyone she encounters, you know?

Anyway, when she wakes, she tells the dwarfs her story, and they offer her safe haven. She’ll cook and clean for them while they’re in the mines, and they’ll do all they can to keep her safe and hidden from the Queen, because they’re pretty smart and they know the Queen’s gonna figure it out soon.

And yeah, she goes to her mirror, expecting to hear that she’s the loveliest again, but no dice. Snow White’s still alive, it seems, and the Queen learns the valuable lesson of not farming out the really important jobs. She uses her mirror to locate Snow White and decides to go take care of the child herself, because apparently she doesn’t have anything else like ruling to do. Can I ask where the King is through all this? Or am I not supposed to worry about it, given that this is a fairy tale?

Anyway, the Queen disguises herself and goes to the dwarfs’ house. Despite the fact that the dwarfs warned Snow White to beware strangers lest they visit on her stepmother’s instructions, Snow White can’t resist the peddler who comes with ribbons. It’s the Queen, obviously, and she uses her ribbons to lace Snow White so tightly she can’t breathe, and falls down as if dead. And the Queen, not thinking this through, assumes the girl is dead and runs away in victory.

I mean, come on Queenie. This really should be something you think through a bit more. Tying some ribbons around her chest really tight? Not the best murder plan, hon. And you really ought to make sure she’s really dead before you start crowing.

The dwarfs come back, find Snow White, cut the laces, and revive her because she wasn’t very dead. And they warn her again, don’t open the door to strangers. But because Snow White is seven, dumb, and easily distracted by shiny things, she forgets these simple instructions when the Queen returns, having learned that her super amazing murder plan somehow failed.

A titch more intelligent this time around, the Queen has a poisoned hair comb that she pricks Snow White’s scalp with, and she falls down as if dead. Not smart enough, though, to finish the job for sure or take the body away with her, the dwarfs are able to revive Snow White again by removing the comb because that’s totally how poison works.

Again, the dwarfs say, “Seriously, Snow White, stop letting in beggar women who clearly want to kill you, you stupid little girl!” Okay, they were probably gentler than that, but seriously, kid. This is not a difficult concept. The people who find you in the forest want to kill you. Pretend you aren’t home. Stay alive.

Well, the Queen learns yet again that Snow White is still alive and goes into a towering rage. With her magic, she crafts an apple poisoned on one side, begging the question of why she hasn’t used magic before this point to end her stepdaughter, but whatever.

She takes the apple to the dwarfs’ and because Snow White is still stupid, she says she can’t let the Queen in, but she can still talk to her through the window and eat an offered apple. The poison takes effect and she falls down dead, almost for realsies this time.

It seems to work this time – the mirror says Snow White is dead, and when the dwarfs return home, they cannot revive her. But they also can’t bear to shut her beauty away in the ground, so they build her a glass coffin and keep her on a hillside instead. You’d think the fact that she doesn’t start rotting might be a giveaway that she might not be totally dead yet, but again, whatever.

Well, one day, an unspecified length of time later, a prince riding by happens to see Snow White in her coffin guarded by dwarfs and this is where things get really creepy, even beyond the wanting to eat young children’s hearts. The prince says, and I quote: “Let me have [the coffin] as a gift, for I cannot live without seeing Snow-white. I will honour and prize her as my dearest possession.”

. . . Um, what? You realize this is a dead girl in a box, right? You want to put that in a lounge somewhere? You want a dead girl to be your dearest treasure? Creepy, dude. Super creepy.

And forget that waking with a kiss bit you think you know; that’s not how it happens here. As they somehow carry the solid gold and glass coffin down a mountain, they hit a tree root, which jostles Snow White, and out pops the bit of apple! Surprise! She’s alive! Again, because that’s totally how poison works!

The prince confesses love and proposes on the spot, and good lord, I hope several years passed in that coffin because otherwise . . . but Snow White agrees to marry him.

But it’s not happily ever after yet, folks. The Queen is still around, after all, and Snow White and her prince invite her to the wedding, because that’s what you do to the woman who tried to kill you on four separate occasions. I mean, it’s not like she crashed the party, guys. She was invited. Repeatedly. For justice! Because she showed up, was strapped into red-hot iron shoes, and forced to dance until she died! Yay . . .

My thoughts? Man, this one’s grim (no pun intended). I mean, seriously people. This fairy tale has never done all that much for me, to be honest. It’s super problematic and gory and a little on the creepy side, and if Disney hadn’t been fascinated with it, I don’t think it would be one that we still really talked about.

So what am I looking for in an adaptation?

Some brains for Snow White. Yeah, I know she’s seven, but could she not be a mindless ninny, please? Give her some grit, some dimension, some intelligence. Something. I beg you.

Strengthen the Queen’s motivation. She’s pissy because a talking mirror thinks a seven-year-old is prettier than she is? It’d be lovely if there was a bit more to it than that.

Understand how poison and murdering works. Please?

Fill in the background. I have so many questions surrounding this story – where is Snow White’s father and why isn’t he stopping this? Where did this prince come from and why doesn’t he find the dead girl in the box a little creepy? What was Snow White doing all day long while the dwarfs were off mining? Who was doing the governing in Snow White’s kingdom? Things like that.

The line-up:

Week 1: Snow by Tracy Lynn
Week 2: Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen
Week 3: Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Week 4: Fairest of All by Serena Valentino

Feel free to read along, and I’ll see you on Friday! I swear!