New twists on fairy tales
Fairy tales are big business these days. With the popularity of "Wicked," the TV show "Once Upon a Time" and films such as "Snow White and the Huntsman" and the upcoming "Maleficent," it's hard to escape the modern retellings, and it's clear that there is an audience for this genre.
I don't remember loving fairy tales when I was young. I craved something a little less sweet, which mixed up the fantasy with a little hard realism. I think maybe I wanted my princess to earn her title through a series of trials and tribulations. I wanted to see real connections between characters that didn't involve frolicking bunnies or helpful bluebirds. Recent attempts at loosely basing adult fiction on fairy tales have been a little more to my liking.
One example of this is the exquisitely written "While Beauty Slept," a debut novel by Elizabeth Blackwell. The author uses her experiences in journalism and knowledge of world history to create a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" that stays in the distant past but relies less on magic and more on psychological manipulation.
Our narrator is Elise, who escapes an outbreak of Pox in her small country town to find her aunt in the royal village. Elise is an illegitimate child who never met her father, a man her mother knew while working as a seamstress at the castle.
Her aunt helps to secure Elise a position at the royal estate, and through her honesty, determination and ability to learn tasks quickly, Elise moves quickly up the servants' ladder, becoming the queen's maidservant. However, things at the castle are not what they seem. Queen Lenore has been unable to bear a child for an heir and travels far and wide to find a cure — whether it be through healing herbs, strange mysticism or physical trials.
When she announces her pregnancy after a mysterious journey with the king's aunt, Millicent, the citizens rejoice. Inside the castle, there is turmoil. The king's brother had assumed he'd win the throne due to their lack of children, and the king and his aunt are battling over the attention and control of the queen.
When the baby is finally born, the kingdom erupts in chaos. The child is a girl, and the king wants to buck tradition by naming a female as heir to the throne. At the ceremony, Millicent pronounces a curse on the child, laying dread in the hearts of the royal family. It is not clear whether Millicent actually has malevolent powers, but the vocalization of the curse alone sets such distrust in the king that it influences his rule for the rest of his time as leader.
Meanwhile, Elise is still employed with the queen, and finds her loyalties to be swayed by the wicked Millicent. Her additional responsibilities are to care for and protect Princess Rose, even in times of almost complete isolation and the inevitability of the conclusion.
Her simple earnestness for doing what is right makes Elise a compelling narrator, and the story is one that is difficult to put down.
If you're interested in other recent titles loosely based on familiar tales, you may also want to try "The Book of Lost Things" by John Connolly, a mash-up of the Brothers Grimm, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Oz," as a 12-year-old escapes life by mixing a little fantasy into his difficult reality.
Another example is "Boy, Snow, Bird" by Helen Oyeyemi. This exquisite novel takes place in the 1950s as a woman flees an abusive household and ends up in New England,where she meets and marries a widower with a young daughter. The daughter is lovely, and the stepmother becomes jealous after having her own daughter and learning family secrets. After being separated, both girls find each other years later and discover their peculiar similarities. This one is a mix of "Snow White" and "The Invisible Man."
Lastly, another beautifully written novel you may want to try is "Betwixt and Between" by Jessica Stilling. A combination of "Peter Pan" and "The Lovely Bones," it features various planes of storytelling as children who pass away too soon are ferried by Peter Pan to live in Neverland until their families are ready to heal and move on.
Take the Disney out of the classic fables and you have some raw ground with which to build a memorable story in these twisted fairy tales.
Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.