Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jack and the Beanstalk Wrap Up

Jack and the Beanstalk Wrap-Up

So, as discussed at the beginning of the month, Jack and the Beanstalk has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. There were just too many problems with it and I couldn’t stand the end where this boy tricked, cheated, lied, stole, and was rewarded in the end. Maybe that said something about real life, but fairy tales aren’t real life, damn it! If I wanted stories like that, I’d just watch the news!

So I always kinda shrugged this story off as a kid, and then I fell in love with Into the Woods – and let me tell you something, I could write you an entire post on Into the Woods, and maybe someday I will (no promises, but maybe). And what I love about Into the Woods is that, in the first act, the stories are all pretty much exactly what they are in real life. They play out just as we know them, interconnected, but in the end, it’s the happily ever afters we expect: Cinderella and Rapunzel get their princes, Little Red is rescued from the wolf, and Jack and his mother are rich off stolen goods.

And then we have Act Two. The whole idea behind Act Two is what happens next? What comes after happily ever after, and is it as perfect as we think? And the driving action of Act Two? The new problem that brings with it so many other problems? The Giant’s Wife has come down the beanstalk, looking for Jack and for justice to be served upon the boy who stole her goods and killed her husband.

And I watched this musical and thought, Yeah. That’s about right. Maybe not kill him, but shouldn’t he answer for what he did?

So since that time (and I was about eight, mind), that’s been my prevailing attitude toward Jack in this story. If I’m going to read about him, I want his wrongs to either not be wrongs as such or to be something he either regrets or has to answer for.

And in each of my four novels this month, we’ve gotten that. Two chose the route of giving Jack stronger motivations in going up the beanstalk (Crazy Jack and The World Above), one had Jack regret his actions later in his life (The Thief and the Beanstalk), and one did both (Calamity Jack).

In Crazy Jack, the giant’s wife had been stolen, and Jack was trying to set her free. She helped him steal the goods as her way to stick it to the husband she was trying to escape from. Jack was also a bit crazy in this one. I love that this book chose to go the route of insanity/stupidity because it called to mind all those other Jack tales, the Foolish Jack stories that this one isn’t really a part of, but could be.

In The World Above, Jack isn’t fighting against the giant, really, but against his father’s usurper, so he’s taking back what rightfully belongs to him. In this story, I love the choice to have Jack originally from the giant’s world, trying to go back and find a place in his rightful home. This Jack was still reckless and impulsive, like Jack from the story, but with a firmer purpose in place.

In The Thief and the Beanstalk, though, we go in the other direction. Jack is a thief, he did do wrong, he lied and cheated and betrayed, all of it. And he knows it. He got rich off of horrible deeds, and that fact has haunted him his whole life, but he’s too much of a coward to go up again and put things right. But he has answered for his crimes, in the guilt that has consumed and defined him most of his life.

And in Calamity Jack, we get this marvelous combination, where Jack is climbing the beanstalk to try and take down the tyrant running his town and making life miserable, but on the other hand, he is also a stupid, reckless kid getting in trouble just for the hell of it. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. That was a fascinating spin on Jack, and I’m glad it was taken.

So we have four very different Jacks here, and four very different takes on the beanstalk and the world that lies at its top, but I enjoyed them all. Rankings:

The World Above by Cameron Dokey is my favorite of the month. I love how she explores the world and the way Robin Hood is intertwined so seamlessly. Highly recommended.

The other three then fall right behind, all recommended, but I love them for such vastly different reasons it’s hard to rank them further!

March’s story will be Cinderella, and truly, I need about five more weeks in the month! There’s a lot to tackle! See you then!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The World Above by Cameron Dokey

The World Above by Cameron Dokey

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Gen and her twin brother, Jack, were raised with their mother's tales of life in the World Above. Gen is skeptical, but adventureous Jack believes the stories--and trades the family cow for magical beans. Their mother rejoices, knowing they can finally return to their royal home.When Jack plants the beans and climbs the enchanted stalk, he is captured by the tyrant who now rules the land. Gen sets off to rescue her borther, but danger awaits her in the World Above. For finding Jack may mean losing her heart

Type of Adaptation: Retelling in combination with the legend of Robin Hood

As you might remember from my review of Winter’s Child, Cameron Dokey went through a short period where her contributions to this series were not as stellar as I had come to expect from her. Granted, it was only a two book slump, Winter’s Child and the one she wrote prior to that, Wild Orchid, falling short of the mark, but still, I was starting to worry. My favorites of hers were her first two, and I was starting to worry that maybe she’d peaked.

The World Above was the book that convinced me otherwise, because this remains one of my favorites of hrs. It’s also the book that sold me on combining two different fairy tales into one story because this book blends Jack and the Beanstalk and the legend of Robin Hood absolutely seamlessly.

So, first important point that we learn, this isn’t Jack’s story. Well, it is, technically, but he isn’t the storyteller. The storyteller is Jack’s twin sister Gen, and she isn’t surprised that you’ve never heard of her. She tends to get left out of the stories because she was never after an adventure.

One prologue in and I’m already in love. Cameron Dokey finds the most wonderful voices for her narrators.

But Gen goes on to share the bedtime story that started it all, the tale her mother told them every night before bedtime, of a magical land called the World Above that existed high above the clouds for any who could reach it. And in this land, there was a Duke whose wife died without giving him an heir. The plan had always been to marry a daughter to the son of the Duke of the neighboring estate, so merging the two and sealing their fortunes. But without an heir, it came to be understood that the son, Guy de Trabant, who inherit both dukedoms when the time came.

However, most unexpectedly, late in life, the old Duke fell in love and married again. Fearful that this new wife would produce heirs and ruin his chance at two kingdoms, Guy de Trabant hired an assassin to kill the Duke, and he then usurped the throne. His intention was also to kill the duke’s wife, but she had been away from the estate, and was warned to flee. Her situation was doubly dangerous, for not only was her head wanted, but she was pregnant with the Duke’s child, his true heir. So she did the only thing that could guarantee her safety.

She obtained a magic bean and threw it through the clouds. A beanstalk grew and down she climbed, to the World Below, taking with her only the clothes on her back and the promise that when the time had come to return, she would be given a sign.

Gen and Jack, then, are supposedly the children she bore, true heirs to a kingdom in the World Above. Jack has always believed this without question. Gen has always been more skeptical. After all, it’s just a bedtime story, told to help Jack feel special.

Because Gen and Jack are vastly different people. Gen is practical and no-nonsense, the planner of the family. But Jack is a dreamer, his head always in the clouds, leaping before he looks and getting into trouble. And their mother always sides with Jack. Gen never let this bother her, not really, but I felt for her, the only person in this home who doesn’t fully believe in the World Above, who is content to continue life in the World Below.

But their life below has become difficult. Drought has pushed their farm to the brink of failure, and it is going to take all of Gen’s careful planning to keep things from going under. And so, she comes up with the plan that necessitates selling their last cow. Jack stubbornly doesn’t want to, but on this matter, their mother sides with Gen. Gen knows she should be the one to take the cow to market, as she would get the best price, but Jack speaks first, and so their mother tells him to go. And instead of bringing home money, as well all know, he brings home beans.

And, just like in the tale, the mother weeps. But not for the reason so commonly believed. Not out of anger or despair, but joy, for the beans Jack has brought home are the same magical beans that took her down the beanstalk. This is their sign, and the time has come to go home.

Jack is all for throwing the bean, climbing the beanstalk, and going in swords blazing to reclaim their throne. Gen rightly points out that this won’t end well for him, and that they need a plan before anyone does anything. Jack makes fun of Gen’s plans, and that’s when Gen finally loses her cool with both brother and mom, to which I say, right on.

I mean, Gen’s our narrator, so when she says she understands she’s not the favorite child, you know that’s true. And she really does have remarkable patience in the beginning. But I was irritated with the way she was treated by her mother and brother just because she wasn’t as gung-ho about climbing a beanstalk to a magical world without a plan in place. So I was really glad to see her stand up for herself.

I love the way she went about it, too. Because Jack was talking about going and reclaiming his throne, and his mother was talking about how to get the people to recognize him as their true leader, and Gen rightfully (and like a badass) points out that as she is five minutes older than Jack, technically she would be the true heir, something both mother and son had completely neglected to factor in.

Of course, Gen doesn’t actually have any interest in the throne, but she wanted to remind her mother and brother that she’s a part of this family, too, even if she views the world a bit differently. It’s a well done moment, and I liked seeing Gen’s assertiveness. It sets up her character really nicely.

Chagrined, Jack and their mother let Gen do her planning, and she comes up with a good one. There were three symbols of the duke’s reign: a goose that laid golden eggs, a sack of gold coins that never ran dry, and a harp that sings truth. If Jack can obtain these items, they can be used to help prove Jack’s lineage. But he isn’t to tell anyone who he really is. And he needs to gather information about what’s going on up in the world.

So he grows a beanstalk, and he climbs it. And a day later, he comes back, goose and sack in hand, spinning tales about the World Above and the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Lovesick he may be, but he also has a story to tell.

At the top of the beanstalk, he found the castle of the Duke, just as he expected. But Guy de Trabant was not in residence. Guy de Trabant rules both dukedoms from his own home across the border, and the Duke’s old castle is currently in the hands of the children of the giant Guy hired to guard it. Their names are Shannon and Sean. Sean is a giant like his father. Shannon is not. But she s the most beautiful woman Jack has ever seen. So beautiful, in fact, that Jack told her exactly who he was and what he was trying to accomplish.

Jack. You had one job, man.

But it turns out it wasn’t a horrible mistake, as Shannon and Sean’s loyalties like not with Guy, but to the people who live on the castle’s land. And the people are not being treated well by Guy. So Shannon and Sean give Jack the goose and the sack, left in the castle, but they cannot give him the harp, for that was taken by Guy to the dukedom on the other side of the forest. It is his most treasured and closely guarded possession.

Jack also learns that Guy de Trabant’s rule is in a bit of trouble. He has not ruled well, and the people are restless. Rumors fly about the old Duke’s long lost heirs, though no one knew for certain that they existed. A rebellion is brewing. And to add to Guy’s trouble, the rebellion is being headed by his own son Robert, going by the name of Robin and living with his men in the forest.

Armed with this knowledge, Jack and Gen create a new plan. Jack will climb a new beanstalk from a new bean (as they chop each one down once the climber is up, for safety). He and Sean will make their way to Guy’s castle for the public assizes, the only times when Guy lets the harp out of its vault. They will try to come up with a way to steal it, for it will help identify Jack as the rightful heir. Jack has four weeks to make this happen and return to the World Below. If he does not return with the harp, then Gen must throw a bean and climb up to rescue him.

Gen ends up having to throw a bean and climb up to rescue him, but you could have guessed that, right?

Gen meets up with Shannon to find out what has happened, and learns that Jack and Sean went out to find the harp, but she hasn’t heard from them since, and believes they probably got captured. Both sisters are terrified for their brothers, and need to get to Guy’s palace as quickly as possible, and so they decide to journey through the forest rather than around, a risk because, as mentioned earlier, this is the forest full of the Merry Men.

And sure enough, the girls are met by Robin and his Little John, in this novel called Steel. At first, they have a little fun with the lonely travelers, but then Steel sees Gen’s face, and it so happens that she’s the spitting image of her mother. Steel worked for the old Duke, and blames himself for the man’s death, and so he immediately recognizes Gen and lets Robin know exactly who they have with them.

Robin’s demeanor changes after that, treating Gen and Shannon with new respect and allowing them to come to the hideout and tell their story and what it is they’re trying to do. Since it fits in rather well with the goal of the rebellion, they join forces.

And Robin is a marvelous character here, honestly more interesting to me than the original Robin Hood figure. Robin Hood of legend is just . . . too perfect. He’s the perfect figure of morality, always doing right by the people, standing up for the little guy, and while that’s all great, he’s never really been characterized beyond that in a way that I connected with. I have no real problem with him, I just don’t find him interesting.

This Robin, though? Him I find incredibly interesting because where he comes from is so much more interesting. He loves his father, but he hates what his father has become. He hates the way that his father treats his people, he hates that his father won his throne through deceit, and he hates that things ended between them the way that they did.

This Robin is fighting for the people, yes, but he’s also doing his best to truly unite them. He lacks the arrogance and cockiness of Robin Hood of legend, I think is the key here for me. He’s not after a throne; he makes that very clear. He’s not after a throne. He just wants to see a just and righteous ruler returned to the throne.

Gen impresses him, and vice versa, and I love this introduction between the two of them, because here you have highly practical Gen, who rolled her eyes at her brother for falling in love at first sight, and she meets this man and learns who he is and almost literally has a conversation with herself along the lines of, “Hey. Heart. Listen up. We’re not gonna do that. We’re not gonna go there. Not a good time. Understand?”

It works about as well as you’d expect.

While they’re trying to figure out a plan to move forward, Sean finds them, and confirms their worst fears – Jack was caught trying to steal the harp, and he’s been thrown into the dungeons, awaiting execution. He has also been recognized as the old Duke’s heir, courtesy of the harp.

However, Guy de Trabant has announced a loophole. There is a tournament approaching, and a contest has been added to it. An archery contest. If a challenger can best the Duke’s archer in the competition, then that challenger will determine what happens to Jack. Of course, only one person has ever beaten the Duke’s archer. Yeah, that’d be Robin.

I love this. I really do. In the original legend, Robin goes because he can’t resist the challenge. But here, he has a real reason; there’s a man’s life at stake. The contest was specifically designed by his father to draw Robin out. There’s a bounty on his head, but the people love Robin too much for anyone to actually claim it. Robin tells Gen this when he tells her that of course he’s going to go free her brother. Gen asks what the bounty is. And Robin tells her. And that’s when Gen comes up with her plan.

See, anyone who turns in Robin wins the right to ask three questions of any person in the presence of the harp, so the questions must be answered truthfully. So here’s how it goes down:

The band head to the tournament, disguised. The archery contest closes things off. It comes down to Robin and the Duke’s archer. Robin wins. Gen steps forward, also disguised, and claims the bounty, identifying him as Robert de Trabant. Guy de Trabant declares that as Robin is also wanted by law, he can’t declare Jack’s freedom. Steel, who hasn’t heard the plan and wants to avenge the wrong he feels he did the old Duke, steps forward to kill Guy. Robin stops him. Robin claims a debt of his father for saving his life, and uses it to force him to give Gen her bounty. He does, and the person she chooses to question is Guy himself. After, of course, she reveals herself as the daughter of the old Duke.

And then she asks Guy her questions, reaching the part of the plan that no one entirely knows about. She asks if he has achieved his heart’s desire. He says no. She asks if he still loves his son. He says yes. And finally, she asks that if she can suggest a way to give back his son and restore his honor in Robin’s eyes, would he accept the bargain? He says yes.

Gen tells him that he has not won his heart’s desire because his throne was taken through bloodshed and deceit, a fact she has rightly guessed has eaten away at him over time. He agonizes over it, guilty and full of regret, but with no way to make amends that he can see. Her bargain, then, is this: marry his son to the old Duke’s heir. Unite the kingdoms the right way, through love. Guy points out that this would be a pretty solution, except that he cannot possibly wed his son to Jack, and that’s when Gen has to point out yet again that, hey, she’s actually the heir, guys.

Guy asks Robin if he would accept this plan. He says yes immediately, though because Gen is a bit thick-headed about some things, she doesn’t know if he’s saying yes because he wants to marry her or because it’s the only choice he has. She’s silly. He points this out later. It’s adorable.

Anyway, Guy renounces his throne, accepts a magic bean, and goes willingly into exile in the world below. Jack and Gen marry their partners and bring their mother up to her rightful land, and all is well and good in the world once more.

Checklist, yes?

Define Jack? Yes, but even more importantly, we defined Gen, and I love that they are the two halves of this character. You have the dreamer, but also the planner. The doer, but also the thinker. It’s lovely.

Tie in the mysterious man? Not really applicable, the way the story was told. I do have my questions about where those beans came from and how they got to the World Below, but while I do think it’s a point not fully explored, it doesn’t bother me enough to gripe about it.

Explore the implications of the giant’s world? I love how fully realized the World Above is. It’s the best of any books we’ve read this month. And I love that it isn’t really a giant’s world. I mean, yeah, a giant happens to live there, but really, it’s just another land up above where magic is real.

Make the ending matter? As I said earlier, I adore the way these two tales are woven together. It is seamless and it is masterful. And the ending is the perfect blend of them, plus doing what needed to be done to make the story its own as well. Definitely one of my favorites, and I’m glad this is how we wrapped up the month.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Thief and the Beanstalk by P.W. Catanese

The Thief and the Beanstalk by PW Catanese

Target Audience: Middle Grade

Summary:  Everyone knows the story of Jack and the beanstalk. Everyone also knows that Jack's little adventure made him a very rich man. But what they don't know is what happened a long time after Jack....

That's where Nick comes in. Orphaned and desperate, Nick joins a rugged band of thieves in hopes of a warm meal and a little protection. In exchange Nick must help them break into the lavish white castle rumored to belong to an old man named Jack. Legend says it's full of riches from Jack's quest up a magical beanstalk decades ago.

When Nick's dangerous mission leads him straight to Jack, he sees a chance to climb the famed beanstalk himself. But what Nick doesn't know is that things are different from when Jack made his climb. There are new foes at the top now. Ones with cruel weapons and foul plans ? plans that could destroy the world as Nick knows it. Will Nick come down the beanstalk a hero? Will he come down at all?

Type of Adaptation: Continuation

So, like the summary says, everyone knows the story of Jack and the beanstalk. And what PW Catanese has done is return to Jack and his story years later, when Jack is an old rich man and the story of how he got his wealth is little more than a legend, a legend that no one entirely believes. But Jack knows the truth of it, and he is eaten up by regrets for what he did: becoming a thief betraying the trust of the giant’s wife, killing the giant himself.

And this is the climate in which we enter this story. I picked this book this month (well, largely because there aren’t that many Jack novels to choose from) because I was very interested in the aftermath of this story, as evidenced by point on the checklist. Jack, to me, has never been this heroic figure. He was rewarded for stupidity, stole his wealth, and killed a man, with no seeming repercussions. I want to know if there were repercussions.

And in this novel, there are.

But Jack is not the focal character of this novel. That honor belongs to Nick, a young orphan the same age that Jack was when he went up the beanstalk, but the difference is, Nick is already a thief and has been some for some time.

Nick’s parents were killed by a plague some time before, and since then, he’s been stealing everything he needs to survive. But it’s getting harder and harder. Then Nick has a run in with a man called Finch.

Finch is the leader of a band of bandits, cutthroats, and robbers – thoroughly unpleasant folk. And Finch has become obsessed with the story of Jack. Oh, he doesn’t believe that Jack climbed a beanstalk and killed a giant for one instant. But he knows that however the real story goes, the fact is that Old Man Jack is hella wealthy. And he and his band are determined to find a way to break into Jack’s stronghold and rob the old man blind.

But the fortress is impenetrable – smooth white marble, windows only high off the ground, no nearby trees of any kind. There are vines, ivy, growing up one side, but they’re small, and won’t hold the weight of a full grown man.

Enter Nick. They catch him thieving, and offer him a place in their band. The job is simple – climb the vines, get inside, don’t get caught, let them in. Then Nick will get a cut of the gold and be a member of the group for life. Nick isn’t sure he wants to do this, but Finch isn’t the kind of man you say no to. So he agrees.

He climbs the ivy, but his lantern bags against the wall, waking a child within and alerting the guard. Luckily, Nick is dressed in all black and remains unseen, but the house is on the alert. Nevertheless, he makes it inside and finds his way to the center of the fortress.

His intention is to abandon the band, steal enough wealth for himself, sneak out the way he came in, and make his escape. But he doesn’t expect to be captivated by what he finds in the inner sanctum – wall after wall of intricate paintings, chronicling Jack’s journey up a beanstalk so long ago, details so perfect and precise and unknown that Nick is forced to accept that maybe that trip up the beanstalk actually happened.

And then he sees the hen, sitting on a pedestal, and Nick knows if he takes her, he’ll be set. She’s all he needs for eternal, continued wealth. So he snags her. But surprise! The hen is stuffed. And that’s when Jack makes his presence known.

He tells Nick that the hen died a long time ago, and that the harp, too, slowly lost its magic. And Nick learns that Jack is here, mostly alone, with his thoughts and his worries and his regrets. He tells Nick that most of all, he regrets not knowing what happened to Her all those years ago, and he takes Nick into a secret chamber where he says his most valuable item is kept. And what is that? Why, a magical bean, of course.

And then Jack leaves. He leaves Nick alone with the bean and the knowledge of treasures unimagined up above the clouds, and he lets Nick do what he will. Nick takes the bean and leaves. And of course he plants it, and of course he climbs the beanstalk.

Though honestly the growing beanstalk is one of my favorite scenes in the book because it alone of all the adaptations this month actually considers what would have to happen to grow a beanstalk tall enough to reach the clouds and sturdy enough to a) support its own weight and b) be able to be climbed. You are very forcefully reminded in this scene that the beanstalk is a living thing and it needs food and it needs water, and it’s going to find them in the fastest way possible, even if that means sucking the moisture out of the ground for miles around.

Anyway, Nick climbs, and at the top of the beanstalk, he finds this magical land, inhabited by two giants who are, if possible, almost worse than the giant Jack killed so many years ago. These two, who call themselves Gnasher and Basher, are that giant’s sons, and Nick soon discovers that they have learned what happened to their father and are determined to find a way down to the human’s world and conquer it.

Nick discovers this while trying to rob the place and accidentally discovering the giantess who helped Jack locked up in a room by her sons, where she has been for the past 40 years, forced to convert pieces of beanstalk into a super strong rope that will carry her sons down to the world below, and if they make it that far, then the humans really stand no chance of survival.

And Nick doesn’t want to care. He really doesn’t. He wants to take his treasure and go. But Gullinda’s story touches his heart, and it did Jack’s, and Nick finds his better nature emerging. He promises to find a way not only to free Gullinda but also to stop her sons from making it to the world below. And she, in turn, offers him a message for Jack: that he is forgiven.

Lots more happens, Finch follows Nick up the beanstalk, the both of them are discovered by Gnasher, Gullinda is freed, Nick successfully stops the giants’ evil plans with Gullinda’s help, Finch dies, the world below is saved, Gullinda’s message is delivered, and Nick walks away a better person, but the tale up to this point is what is directly Jack and the Beanstalk, so let’s stop there and head for the checklist.

Define Jack? I love this exploration of Jack. That he was a good kid until he gave into this temptation and became a thief, and all these years later, he has regretted his actions his entire life. He has wanted to make amends, but he has been too scared and then too old to plant the beans and make them for himself. So he waits, waits for just the right person to send up in his stead. This is a very real portrait of Jack, and I love it.

Tie in the mysterious man? Eh, kinda. Nick meets him at one point, and demands why he did what he did, but they guy basically just lives to make mischief. Which is, really, explanation enough for me.

Explore the implications of the giants’ world? I’m a big fan of what Catanese has done here – this world on a cloud that floats freely unless anchored by the beanstalk. I like the continuation of the giant’s line, that we get to see his sons here and how his death affected them, and the giant’s wife. But there are still things I’d like answered, like, why are these the only giants on the cloud, and are there others somewhere else, needing magical cornstalks or potato plants to connect them to earth?

Make the ending matter? This entire novel is about the ending of Jack’s tale, and I just love the continuation. Catanese did exactly what I wanted someone to do with this story.

The final review of the month will be up later today – sorry for the late posting. Life got crazy!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli

Target Audience: Middle Grade

Summary: Once there was a boy named Jack who traded away a cow for a handful of beans. But Jack was no fool, he was haunted since the day his father climbed up into the clouds and vanished. When the beans provide a way for Jack to pursue his father, he enters the Giant’s world, where he discovers the terrifying ends of greed and desire.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

This is a Donna Jo Napoli that I hardly ever hear anyone talk about, which is really a shame because I think she really hit the mark here. If there’s one thing I really appreciate her for, it’s tackling the little-known and little-done stories.

So, with Crazy Jack, we start back when young Jack’s life is happy and whole and lovely. He lives with his father and mother, they are successful farmers, he is studying to become a great farmer like his father. His father has a slight problem with making wagers, but it doesn’t get in the way of anything, and often helps the family out. Jack’s closest friend is Flora, a girl his age who he is already in love with at age nine, and they are unofficially promised to each other when they get older. Life is good.

But because this is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, we all know that life isn’t going to stay good. And it doesn’t. The country is hit with a terrible drought, that goes on and on. The crops fail, the garden fails, they’re barely getting by. Jack’s father is able to make some wagers, but not enough, and the tension is definitely creeping in. Jack’s father feels like a failure because he can’t provide for his family. Jack’s mother is angry because her husband is being reckless and not thinking and planning realistically for the future. And Jack, nine years old, is caught in the middle of everything.

And then things get even worse. Jack’s father loses a wager, and he loses the fields. He argues that without rain, they aren’t worth anything anyway, but things are worse than they’ve ever been. Flora’s mother and baby brother die, and so he family is able to give them a little in exchange for gravedigging, but it’s little comfort, given the situation.

And then the rains come. Gentle, warm, exactly what’s needed to bring back life. And there they are with no fields. And Jack forgets to fix the coop, and so one of their two chickens gets eaten by a fox, which means no more eggs. And Jack’s mother and father get into a fight worse than any they’ve had before. Jack, desperate to stop the fighting, pulls his father outside to see a rainbow, but that ends up making things worse, because Jack’s father becomes obsessed with finding gold at the rainbow’s end.

In a fit of madness, Jack’s father follows the rainbow to a sheer cliff face and begins to climb. Jack follows him desperately, trying to get him to come back, to convince him that he doesn’t want gold, that it’s not important. But Jack’s father doesn’t turn back. Jack watches as his father makes it to the top of the cliff, steps out into the clouds, and is gone.

The story then skips ahead seven years. Jack is sixteen, and mad. What he watched his father do that day turned him crazy. Each year on the anniversary of his father’s death, Jack throws himself at the cliff face, trying to climb it. He finds himself obsessed with the idea of rainbows and magic and no one can talk any sense into him. He is driven mad by the idea of not knowing what happened to his father.

Times are still very tough, what with not owning their own fields, Jack’s yearly issues, and the not-official marriage to Flora called off on account of crazy. Both Flora and Jack’s mother try to snap Jack out of whatever it is that grips him, but Jack knows because he saw it — there’s something else that went on the day his father died. There’s something about the top of that cliff, and he needs to know what it is.

Eventually, their cow stops giving milk, and so Jack’s mother sends him with the cow to the market. The animal is only good for meat, but they might be able to get a good sum for her.

But on the way to market, Jack meets a mysterious man – a mysterious man dressed in his father’s clothes. Jack soon discovers that the man is a fairy and that he knows how to get to the top of the cliff. He offers seven beans, the colors of the rainbow, to Jack in exchange for the cow. Jack agrees immediately.

He expects his mother to be as thrilled as he is, but she is understandably heartbroken. The cow was all they had left. And now it’s gone, exchanged for worthless beans.

Jack, determined to make this up to his mother, plants the beans at the base of the cliff. Overnight, a beanstalk has grown up the cliff face, but more than that, the entire little valley is full of bean plants. To Flora, who found Jack there, the beans that they can pick and eat and sell should be the real victory. But Jack is obsessed with the stalk.

The beans help, of course, and their fortunes improve, but Jack needs to know what lies at the top. So, one day, he climbs. He climbs the stalk to the top of the cliff face, and like his father before him, at the top, he steps off into the clouds.

And he finds a large home that has to belong to the giant rumors have always said lived at the top of the cliff. Jack is greeted at the door by a human girl, not a giant, though she is taller than the average human girl – Jack at sixteen comes up to her shoulder – and this girl is convinced that Jack has come to save her, to rescue her from the giant who kidnaped her many years before.

Jack agrees to do what he can to help her, but before he can make good on that promise, the giant returns. Jack hides under the bread bowl, and the girl does her best to distract the giant and convince him that he’s crazy, he doesn’t smell Englishmen, where would one come from?

Eventually, the giant falls asleep, but not before Jack sees him with his magic hen, ordering it to lay golden eggs. On his way out the door, Jack snags the hen, heading down the beanstalk with it. But when he gets to the bottom, the hen is an ordinary size, not giant at all, and when he orders it to lay, it lays on command, but regular eggs, not golden ones.

Jack is incensed, and Flora has to talk him down, show him that a hen that lays on command, lots of eggs, without needing a rooster, is more valuable than one that lays golden eggs. Flora stopped by to tell Jack that she’s going to marry a young man who’s been courting her, though both Jack and I note that for someone who is supposedly going to marry someone else, she still seems to hang around Jack’s an awful lot.

Between the eggs and the beans, life is looking up for Jack and his mother, but Jack can’t stop thinking about the girl at the top of the beanstalk, and so, after a few weeks have passed, he climbs up again. The giant’s wife meets Jack at the top of the beanstalk with a pot of gold she wants him to take. She’s thrilled Jack stole from her husband, and wants to help him do it again.

But again, Jack is almost caught. The wife shoves him in the ale barrel, and has a harder time convincing the giant that nothing suspicious is going on. She basically has to agree to sexytimes to get the giant to fall asleep. Jack urges her to come with him, but she can’t without waking the giant. So Jack descends alone, falling a lot of the way as giant heavy iron pots full of gold prove difficult to carry down a beanstalk.

But when he gets to the bottom, the pot, like the hen, has shrunk, and is full not of gold, but of ordinary stones. However, the stones are unending, and always the type Jack needs for whatever project he has in mind. The stones let him fix the roof, build a wall around the fields they’ve bought back for themselves, construct a new chicken coop for their brood, and finally, he takes the pot into the woods and starts to build a stone house for Flora.

Because Jack is still entirely in love with her, and he knows that somewhere, she loves him, too, but she’s afraid. His crazy scares her, and she can’t saddle herself to the lunatic and expect a respectable life. Jack gets that, partly, but he still builds this house for her, and she comes and watches him work.

Her fiancĂ© comes as well, and eventually offers to buy the house. He’s very firm about it, and Jack knows the reason why – Flora wants the house. She wants the house that Jack built, not the mansion William wants to put her in. And he knows that he’s won, as certainly as he knows that he will not, for any price, sell the house.

When William leaves, Jack is left with the overwhelming feeling that something is missing. And something his father said once comes back to him. He said that everyone needs three things in life. Jack’s muddled mind ties this to the beanstalk. He’s only gotten two things from the beanstalk. He needs the third.

So he goes back. And this time, he climbs it at night, and he comes to the house when the giant is out. The wife tells Jack that the giant is always gone at night and will be gone for hours. This is the point where Jack learns her whole story, how she came to be a giant’s wife. It’s also when he learns what happened to his father – he didn’t step off the cliff to his death, he stepped off into the world above the clouds. He met the giant’s wife as well, and he promised to rescue her, but he was caught by the giant and killed.

On the one hand, this news is devastating to Jack. On the other, it’s something he needed to know if he was ever going to truly heal.

Well, the giant returns unexpectedly, and Jack barely has time to be hidden in the oven. The harp is brought out, and Jack knows the third thing he is “meant” to steal. So when the giant falls asleep, out Jack creeps, snatching it up and running for the stalk. But the harp betrays him, calling out to its master and waking the giant.

The giant realizes that his wife has done this, betrayed him and lied to him, so he kills her, a horrible death, but in taking the time to do so, he gives Jack the head start he needs. He gets to the bottom before the giant and chops down the stalk, and stalk and giant fall and shrink as they both hit the ground. In the end, the giant is nothing more than a man.

We skip again in the final chapter, landing months later. Jack is no longer crazy; his journeys up the beanstalk have cured him. Slowly, the magic leeched out of the hen and the harp and the pot, but he doesn’t care. He and his mother live comfortably, and Jack has learned to play the harp on his own, and the music aids his healing. He plays for all that he has loved and lost, and he resolves to give the house he built to Flora as a wedding present.

But it turns out that Flora has been eavesdropping, listening to Jack’s music all night while he has played. And his music touches something in her, and she knows she can’t marry William. She has to be true to her heart. And so she stays with Jack.

I like this novel. I like how Napoli tells us the tale in a way that doesn’t shrink away from the grit and potentially gruesome details, but she manages to soften them. She gives us a plausible explanation for Jack’s actions, and she works some really lovely messages in with Jack’s craziness.

But let’s to the checklist.

Define Jack? Yep. This is a kid who felt responsible for his father’s apparent suicide, so yeah, he went a little crazy. And that really does explain a lot of the problems surrounding this story. He’s not an idiot, he’s just obsessed with what happened and with finding answers. He’s grief-stricken, and he’s never been able to move past that grief because he’s never been able to understand what he saw.

Tie in the mysterious man? This story made him one of the fairy kind, able to look and Jack and see what he needed. And in giving it to him, he was able to cause mischief as well. I like how Napoli tied this in with English folklore concerning the Fae and their legends. It really helped place the tale in a culture. MM wasn’t behind a lot of the shenanigans, but he served his purpose.

Explore the implications of the giants’ world? Not as much as I would have liked, honestly. I mean, there were at least legends of giants, but I feel like a little more could have been done with who they were and where they came from.

Make the ending matter? Yes. This is a story about grief and overcoming it and how our obsessions pull things out of perspective, and it was all quite beautifully done.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale

So, back in October, we read Rapunzel’s Revenge, in which Rapunzel is a Wild West-esque, braid-lasso-wielding, kick-ass cowgirl, who teamed up with Jack (of beanstalk fame) and went off on adventures. And in this follow-up graphic novel, the team is back to give us that Jack’s story.

Jack has been poor most of his life. His mother owns a bakery, and Jack has spent most of his young life getting into trouble. He discovered at an early age that he had a talent for developing schemes, and that those schemes could get him things. After his father died and business continued to go downhill, Jack’s schemes became more and more elaborate, trying to do right by his mother by lying, cheating, stealing, and tricking his way through the city.

Now, it so happens that a giant, a thoroughly unpleasant fellow by the name of Blunderboar, likes to terrorize Jack’s mother, specifically by bringing her his own “special” flour with which to make his bread. He then usually refuses to pay for it, which of course incenses Jack. So he decides to come up with a scheme to handle Blunderboar once and for all.

Blunderboar lives in a floating penthouse high above the city, and Jack goes to do some reconnaissance, discovering that Blunderboar has his penthouse guarded by a jabberwock among other things, and they’re going to need something special to get inside.

And so, this Jack sells his “cow” – his father’s calfskin jacket – and uses the money to buy magic beans that are supposed to create a giant beanstalk immediately. So he plants one, but when nothing happens, he’s sure he’s been cheated, so he throws three of the others away in disgust, but keeps one to remind himself of his foolishness.

But then, he’s awoken by a terrible rumbling, and he sees that the bean has grown, it just took a bit of time. He climbs up the stalk that now leads to the penthouse, and slips inside. Once in, he hears the giants talking about the goose that lays golden eggs, and he decides that such a goose will be payment enough for his endeavor.

But as he makes his way back down, the goose is discovered missing, and Jack is caught, and the beanstalk is also till growing, and its roots are destroying his mother’s shop and boarding house. Jack knows he has to do something to stop it, so he grabs an axe and starts chopping away at it, hoping that killing th beanstalk will stop its growth. But there was a giant pursuing him down the stalk. Jack tries to warn him that the beanstalk is going to topple, but Eric the giant doesn’t listen, and is killed.

Things are bad for Jack. Because in this version, that isn’t the end of the story – that’s just all that happened to Jack before he met Rapunzel. He is forced to run for his life with nothing but the goose for company, a goose that refuses to lay eggs, until after his adventure with Rapunzel, at least.

Much like the Rapunzel narrative they told before, the actual fairy tale in question gets split up, with the bulk of it happening in the beginning, then other additional adventures happening in the middle, and coming back to the fairy tale in the end to tie things up. Jack and the Beanstalk as we know it takes up the first twenty or so pages, and then Jack goes off to other things.

But we come back to the narrative because where the original story honestly seems to end in the middle, this one comes back to answer all those unanswered questions. We get the loose ends tied up here. Jack has to answer for the killing of one of the giants, but more importantly, the giants have to answer for the way they treat the humans. Jack’s theft was about justice and about revenge, the murder of the giant mostly accidental, and something he did try to prevent.

Jack returns to the city, and everything is worse than when he left. It becomes the end of his story, therefore, to put things to rights, which is what he was setting out to do in the first place. The giant’s plot is exposed, the people are released from the giants’ tyranny, and Jack does live happily ever after, having learning that he can be one of the good guys despite his past.

So yeah, short review this month, but it’s a short book and I don’t want to bog down in details that aren’t specifically Jack and the Beanstalk, you know?

Anyway, checklist.

Define Jack? Very well. We see here a Jack who grew up surrounded by thieving and less than honest dealings, and so becoming a part of that world was the only way for a kid to survive, and Jack had a knack for it. But we also see his growth, the ways in which he’s trying to change. He realizes that his dealings were the result of truly poor choices, and that’s what I want out of Jack, to be honest. Growth. We get that here.

Tie in the mysterious man? Well, not exactly, but then in this version, we don’t need to. The beans aren’t this random plot device thrown at Jack – magic is an established part of the world, and magic is what Jack was looking for when he went to buy the beans. So because the beans themselves were tied in better with the world, the guy selling them didn’t need to be.

Explore the implications of the giants’ world? Here, it wasn’t really a separate world. It was shared with the humanfolk, and the giants were their oppressors.

Make the ending matter? Beautifully. Jack grows and the issues I have with the original story were all addressed. In fact, that’s what the bulk of the novel was for! Really well done, all the way around, and a lovely companion to Rapunzel’s Revenge.

Jack and the Beanstalk (According to Cassie)

Jack and the Beanstalk (According to Cassie)

So, basically, there’s this kid, and he lives with his mother, and they’re incredibly poor. They’ve got a cow and a hut, and that’s pretty much it, and while the cow gives milk, they can get by. They drink the milk and sell the rest of it, and while it’s not great, they manage.

But then the cow stops giving milk, as I assume cows are wont to do at some point, and the mother starts freaking out over how they’re going to live.

Jack says, “Don’t worry! I’ll go get a job!” Which, while a responsible response to the situation, kinda makes me ask why he didn’t have one before now.

Mom jumps in with, “We tried that before, and no one will take you.” Which, while might be true for whatever reason . . . c’mon, Mom. The job market shifts and changes every six months, and opportunities that might not have been open before might need someone with Jack’s skill set, so shouldn’t he at least submit some applications?

...sorry. Facing the prospect of job hunting soon. Neither here nor there. Moving on.

So, the Mother’s superior plan is to take this dried-up who is now of no use to you, and go sell her at market and use the money to start up a shop.

Now, no doubt you’ve heard the version where Jack doesn’t want to sell the cow because she’s his best friend, and yes, that’s a version that exist. But there’s also the version where Jack obeys his mother without comment, taking the cow to market to sell. Mom wants five pounds for the animal, and while I’m not an expert in converting fairy tale money sums into today’s currency, if that’s the money required to start up a small business, I’m really thinking the cow’s not gonna be worth that much.

I’m also thinking that this mother is sadly out of touch with reality, and setting up her son for failure. I mean, come on. This cow is either so old, so ill-fed, or so sick that she won’t produce milk – who exactly are you thinking is going to buy her at all, let alone for five pounds?

Now, in some stories, Jack gets lost on the way to market (which really paints him as a simpleton, given that he supposedly went every week to sell milk), and in others, he meets his mysterious gentleman on the road. And because Jack has never been warned of the dangers of talking to mysterious strangers he meets in the woods, he tells the man who he is and where he’s going and what he’s trying to do.

Well, the man won’t pay five pounds for a cow, but he does have five beans, which he claims are magic, and would Jack accept that as payment? And Jack, further painting himself as a simpleton, agrees.

I mean, okay. I want to be charitable. I want to give Jack the benefit of the doubt. But dude. In what world do you accept five beans as equal payment for a cow, even an old, dried-up one?? There’s ways to make that believable, absolutely. But this fairy tale? Doesn’t do it. Jack just comes off as an absolute ninny. And that might be the point, to be honest.

Anyway, Jack makes the trade and takes the beans home to his mother, all proud and excited, and his mother, predictably, is furious. She takes the beans and throws them out the window and sends Jack to bed without supper, though whether that’s a punishment or just because there’s no supper to be had isn’t clearly defined.

But it turns out the beans were magic after all, because overnight, a giant beanstalk grows from the place where Jack’s mother threw them. Upon discovering this, Jack decides that the best option is to climb it, beanstalks being known for their sturdiness, after all.

But this beanstalk is, and upon climbing all morning, Jack finds himself in a magical kingdom high in the sky, full of giants. Terribly hungry, he goes up to the nearest giant door and knocks on it and begs food from the giantess who answers. Which . . . yeah, not what I would have chosen to do first, I don’t think. Of course, it should be noted that I would also never climb a beanstalk stretching into the sky, either.

Luckily for Jack, the giantess is a decent sort of woman. She tries to warn him away, stating that her husband enjoys snacking on human boys like carrot sticks, but Jack really wants some food, so she takes him to the kitchen to feed him.

And then, who should return home, but the giant husband who likes to eat human boys! The giantess, a quick thinker, bundles Jack into the oven (which, had this been any other fairy tale, could have ended much differently) to hide him, and the giant appears with his classic “Fee Fi Fo Fum” line, and his wife tells him he’s crazy! There are no human boys here! Certainly not hiding in the oven! Here, have some food.

Once the giant has eaten and fallen asleep, Jack is able to slip out of the house, but not before showing his thanks to the giantess for feeding him, hiding him, and saving his life, by stealing a sack of gold on his way out.

Seriously, Jack? I mean, I suppose with that mother, it’s no wonder, but man!

Anyway, this repeats twice more, and you’d think the giantess would wise up, but not so much, and Jack walks away with a goose that lays golden eggs and a magic harp before he’s caught because he doesn’t stop to think that a magic harp might also be sentient and wake the giant he’s trying to escape from.

So the giant wakes, and is pissed at hell that this little human boy has been stealing from him, so he chases after him, down the beanstalk. Jack reaches the bottom first, chops down the stalk with his axe, and sends the giant crashing to his death. And Jack and his mother live happily ever after, rich off of stolen goods! Yay!

Thoughts on this story? Okay. So often we think of this tale as the story of a brave and plucky lad who won riches and killed a monster! But, is it really? Honestly, Jack’s . . . kind of a tool. He’s dumb as a box of rocks, sells his cow for beans, steals, lies, and repays the kindness of the giantess by robbing her and killing her husband. And are there any repercussions? Nope. None. Whatsoever. In fact, the story ends with Jack marrying a rich princess and living happily ever after.

Guys, this one’s a problem. Let’s see who can fix it.

What am I looking for in an adaptation?

Define Jack. Jack is a very strange dichotomy in this story. On the one hand, he seems just staggeringly dumb, but on the other, he’s a conniving thief. So what it is? Is he purposefully taking revenge on the giants for some wrong done? Is he just dumb as a box of rocks and not thinking about anything really? Is he inherently lazy and will do anything for money he doesn’t have to work for? Is he a good kid whose story has been mistold? What? I would like a firm characterization.

Tie in this mysterious man. His sole purpose in the story is to get the magic beans to Jack. But why? If he knew of their magic, why trade them for an old, dried-up cow? Were they given to Jack specifically?  Did he just take pity on this kid? Is he a con man? Did he know the beans were magic? What’s his story, and why was he carrying around magic beans, and does he have more to do with things than we think?

Explore the implications of the giants’ world. There’s an entire civilization up in the clouds and nobody knows about it? How does that work, exactly? Are there any legends of the magical world? How did it come to be there? Why is it only accessible by beanstalk? Are they aware that another world exists beneath their feet? What’s going on in this hidden world?

Make the ending matter. The ending of this story is so problematic. Jack gets away with murder, literally, and with stealing, and there are no repercussions? How do people react to this? How do they deal with the massive dead giant rotting away in the middle of the forest or town or fields or wherever he lands? I’m not saying they should change the way this ends, I just want these things to be addressed.

The line-up for the month:

Week 1: Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hal
Week 2: Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli
Week 3: The Thief and the Beanstalk by P.T. Catanese
Week 4: The World Above by Cameron Dokey

See you later today with Calamity Jack!