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Burning Girls coverIf you’re going to recast your fairy tale into the present day or the recent historical past, it’s best to understand what—and whom—fairy tales are for. A simple retelling simply won’t do.

Forty years ago, the venerable historian Eugen Weber posed the following question: “What is real in folk tales?” [1] His argument was that these tales could tell us a lot about the living conditions of European peasants, and the dangers they faced on a regular basis: crippling debt, chronic hunger, death in childbirth (stepmothers, wicked or otherwise, were not remotely hypothetical: maternal mortality rates were high, and widowers remarried quickly). Fairy tales are therefore also about fear: they are cautionary tales. Be careful in the woods, or else the witch or the wolf will eat you. Only luck, or magic, could save you. Or it might be what gets you. One or the other. Fairy tales are about survival.

Which means that fairy tales are above all else by and for people without power. This is something well understood by Veronica Schanoes, whose first short story collection, Burning Girls and Other Stories, is a virtuoso demonstration of the use of fairy tale tropes and themes in fantasy. Schanoes knows her stuff: by day she’s an English professor whose research focuses on fairy tales; her takes are feminist, socialist, and passionate as hell, and they draw heavily on the historical Jewish experience. The volume’s thirteen stories, two original to the collection, are exquisitely written and fiercely erudite, and reward knowledge of the fairy tales on which they’re based. There are readers who would probably appreciate a concordance or guide that points out exactly what the author is doing and where, or even story afterwords for that matter, but the stories can still be read and appreciated without that kind of background knowledge.

Ill admit that I did some looking-up of the stories’ fairy-tale source material after reading them, but its a sign of good storytelling that this is optional: the stories still hit their marks. I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to know, for example, that “Alice: A Fantasia” is not so much about Alice in Wonderland as it is about its author’s real-life relationship with the young Alice Liddell. Or that “Rats” is about Nancy Spungen, or even who Nancy Spungen is, or indeed anything about the Sex Pistols: the story lands hard enough as a Sleeping Beauty retelling that is about pain, music, and addiction. But the narrator wants it to land harder still, to make the point, asking the reader again and again whether you recognize the story yet:

Perhaps youve read bits of interviews here and there: she was nauseating, she was the most horrible person in the world, she was a curse, a dark plague sent to London on purpose to destroy us, she turned him into a sex slave, she destroyed him, say the middle-aged men and occasional women who look back twenty-five years at a schizophrenic teenage girl with a personality disorder shooting junk—because here and now we still havent figured out a way to make that kind of illness bearable, whod wanted to die since she was ten because she hurt so much, and what they see is a frenzied harpy. She destroyed him. (p. 197)

On the other hand, some of the stories in Burning Girls and Other Stories are easier to comprehend: “Lily Glass” (which first appeared here in Strange Horizons in 2009) is Snow White flipped in a mirror, its protagonist a stepmother—an ingenue film star newly married to a rakish older man with a daughter only two years younger than her—set in Golden Age Hollywood; it’s a context that welcomes a reconfiguration of the stepmother trope. “Ballroom Blitz,” meanwhile, reconfigures the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, but from the perspective of the princes—only they’re not princes but twelve brothers trapped in a punk club. In this version of the story, the curse comes before the dancing. “The Revenant,” previously unpublished, is a “Bloody Mary”-inspired revenge fantasy astonishingly personal and confessional in tone, utterly disarming in its introspection. Other stories are more surreal, less plotted, but still salted with references to fairy-tale tropes and themes, all tossed off as adroitly and casually as if they were pop-culture references. (Which, when you think about it, is what they are.)

Even absent this informed background, these stories have a pervasive fairy-taleness that envelops the reader with a sense of the familiar that is somehow, strangely, comforting, even when the stories themselves are not. Indeed, precisely because they’re fairy tales, they most certainly are not. Nor are they supposed to be. By and large these are not upbeat stories; they’re beautiful, elliptical and strange, but truly happy endings are generally not in the cards—the best that can be hoped for is to escape or simply continue. Success, when it comes, is in fleeting moments, after long sacrifice. In the previously unpublished “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga,” which does what it says on the tin, Emma Goldman may be speaking for the author when she says that moments “‘are all any one of us ever has. This moment, and the next, and the next. Perhaps thats all there ever is at all’” (p. 178).

Schanoes isnt just retelling, or remixing, or reinterpreting—she’s doing a lot more than simply giving us Grimm, Lang, or dAulnoy in modern dress. The once-upon-a-time of fairy tales is in many cases given a (more or less) specific time and place: either the vague now or a precise moment in history. Her fairy-tale themes easily cohabit with sweatshops and shtetls, with subways and supermarkets, and with punk rockers and movie stars. For me, the highlights of the collection are the stories that meld the fairy tale with the historical—as a (lapsed) historian by training, this is something I’m particularly responsive to. But I have to confess that I usually find alternate history and historical fantasy a tough sell: I have too much actual history in my head to sit back and enjoy the story if the author gets the historical fundamentals wrong. (This is something physicists have to deal with in hard science fiction, I’m sure.) But Schanoes combines history with the fairy tale in a way that works. In “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga,” Goldman, the anarchist firebrand, deported from the United States and finding the Russian Revolution not to her liking, encounters the old witch’s hut and is made an offer she isn’t supposed to refuse. The story is also a meditation, at times personal, on the same story—Goldman’s story—being told and retold in historical and fantasy registers and on becoming disillusioned with your ideals. It’s neat, high-concept work; it helps that Schanoes has done her homework here, too, just as in the other tales.

In the end, whether a fairy tale/history combination is successful comes down to applying the fairy tale to the right historical subject in the right way. This brings us back to the question: who and what are fairy tales for? Again: the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the ones without resources. Those who are trapped unless and until they resort to the supernatural—which becomes, to borrow a term from James C. Scott’s studies of everyday forms of peasant resistance, one of the weapons of the weak.

Given that, it makes perfect sense to apply fairy-tale tropes to the industrial age, where the lurking dangers are factory owners, and cruel working conditions, rather than wolves and witches. “Phosphorus,” which first appeared in 2013 as the best story in Ellen Datlow’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells anthology, tells the story of the matchgirls’ strike of 1888 from the point of view of one of the Bryant and May factory workers, who herself is dying of phossy jaw—a condition caused by exposure to white phosphorus that literally destroys jawbones. The story’s fantastic element, which may or may not serve as a deus ex machina, is almost an afterthought; it is principally a recounting of the strike in furious detail, a jeremiad interleaving factual accounts with a second-person narrative.

The title novella, “Burning Girls,” applies magic and demons from Jewish folklore to two seemingly dissimilar events: the Białystok pogrom of 1906 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The protagonist, Deborah, is apprenticed at a young age to her grandmother, from whom she learns both magic and how to provide health services—including, pointedly, abortifacients—to the women in her grandmothers shtetl and in Białystoks Jewish community. Magic is for Deborah and her bubbe both a danger and a defence, the cause of—and solution to—all her problems: when a demon called a lilit comes to collect on its contracts, escaping the consequences of those contracts results, as always, in even worse consequences, which is where the fairy tale bumps up against the historical. When Deborah and her sister escape to America and find work in the sweatshops of New York, they discover that they have not left the lilit behind.

In “Burning Girls” the lilit is the personification of menace, but also personifies the continuity of menace. “In America, they don’t let you burn. My mother told me that” (p. 279), says Deborah in an opening line that telegraphs the bitterly ironic denouement: America is, in the end, not safe for them either. In the novelette that opens this volume, “Among the Thorns,” the continuity of menace and fear encompasses the entire historical Jewish experience. Inverting one of the worst and most problematic of Grimm’s tales, “The Jew in the Thornbush,” to which it also serves as a sequel, “Among the Thorns” is told by the daughter of the man hanged by German townsfolk. Having sworn revenge for his murder, she is possessed by a dybbuk who aids her, and transforms her in the process, but in doing so shows her visions of what is to come:

The world around me teemed with flickering images, nightmarish visions of stone roads carrying metal beasts, of burning homes, of people pressed like livestock into mechanical carts, children crying, separated from their parents, toddlersheads dashed against walls, of starvation, and of our neighbors turning on us, only too glad to agree to our degradation and murder. The visions persisted no matter where I turned my head, and there was no reprieve, nor any justice, no justice anywhere. (p. 41)

In this story, Schanoes is placing a retold fairy tale set in medieval central Europe along a continuum of European anti-Semitism. It’s to say that “The Jew and the Thornbush” is not singular, not an aberration: that, turned upside down and seen from the perspective of who it hurts—where the focus of the fairy tale ought to have been—it’s very much about the fear that has always been intrinsic to being Jewish in Europe.

What Schanoes is doing, in other words, is practicing a realist mode of fairy-tale storytelling, one that knows what the source material is about but grounds it in times and places appropriate to its themes. Fairy tales, we’re told over and over again in “Rats,” are lies, but that isn’t strictly true. It’s fascinating to see Schanoes’ tales inhabit the space between truth, lies, and historical fact.

Endnotes

[1] Eugen Weber, “Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folk Tales,” Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (1981), pp. 93-113, reprinted as “What Is Real in Folk Tales?” in Weber, My France: Politics, Culture Myth (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 75-91. [return]



Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His essays and reviews have been published by AE, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Tor.com. A former historian, civil servant, snake breeder, reporter, and fanzine editor, he lives in Shawville, Quebec. Visit his website at jonathancrowe.net.
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