So I found two new books this week to read and I enjoyed them both immensely. They're both by Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade. Picture A Tale of Two Cities and the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with teenagers. Now that might strike horror in your literary soul, but really, they're very good books. They're set in Revolutionary France and England, and Mrs. Gardner does a really good job of describing the sheer horror and mob mentality of the era, where ideals like Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were scarified for violence, greed, and stupidity. The bad aristocrats are deliciously weak-minded and foppish, the villain, one Count Kalliovski, is one of the most genuinely creepy and evil bad guys I've read in recent teen fiction. It focuses on Yann Margoza, a mysterious Gypsy boy with unusual talents and Sido, the crippled daughter of a vain and cowardly marquis. To tell you any more might spoil the books, but for anyone who wants a good old-fashioned adventure/romance story with supernatural elements thrown in, pick these two up. Sally Gardner paints an accurate and sometimes wrenching portrait of Revolutionary France, with its Madame a la Guillotine the true ruler of the masses.
On the note of book recommendations, I have another story for you to pick up, should you be so inclined. I'm a sucker for re-told fairy tales and the standard fare is usually Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or maybe (one in a while) Little Red Riding Hood. But one fairy tale is usually left out of the pantheon, Rumpelstiltskin. I've never been satisfied with the story, myself. Why would the miller tell the king "My daughter can spin straw into gold" and why would the king believe it? Why does the daughter go along with her father's preposterous yarn and then accept the help of the little man who shows up so unexpectedly and demands such strange payments? And why would she marry the king, after he threatens to kill her three times if she doesn't comply? And finally, the miller's daughter turns on the only one who helps her the entire story, Rumpelstiltskin himself, by revealing his name and sending him to who-knows where.
See? The whole story makes no sense whatsoever. Modern scholars say that Rumpelstiltskin is one of the darker tales in the Brothers Grimm pantheon, a vehicle for anti-Semitism, Rumpelstiltskin being portrayed by the illustrators in the robes of a money-lender, the main occupation of Jews in Europe. So you'd think that a score of teen authors would try and breathe fresh life into the tale, wouldn't you?
The one really good retelling of Rumpelstiltskin I've read is A Curse Dark As Gold, by Elizabeth Bunce. She sets the story in alternate universe of pre-Industrial Revolution England, where steam-run machines are beginning to take over the work force. The main character is Charlotte Miller and her sister Rosie, trying desperately to save the family mill from foreclosure and from their grasping and so-called "genteel" Uncle Wheeler, who accept the dark bargain of the mysterious and frightening Jack Spinner. What I liked best about the story that it provides a really good reason for why Jack Spinner (the Rumpelstiltskin character) wants to "help" the Miller sisters. The "king" of the story is a banker, who is actually a really decent fellow who falls in love with Charlotte (the oldest daughter) and marrys her in all goodwill. It's full of magic, fascinating tidbits of English folklore and charms, and it sets the old story to rest easy. I highly recommend it to anyone, like myself, who has been displeased with the original story.
Over & Out,