Many kinds of containers appear in fairy tales: magic pots that make endless porridge; purses that provide coins; wolves' skins that hide grandmothers; cats' skins that cover up princes and princesses. And then there are the characters themselves, as Kellie Wells writes in the commentary on her story in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: "I like that a character can be flat and complex at once if one abandons attachment to conventional notions of character psychology and allows characters to become a container for ideas" (p. 359-60). In Kate Bernheimer's collection of forty fairy tales retold by contemporary writers, it is not just the characters but also the tales that become the containers for their authors' ideas, modern preoccupations, and experiments with form.
Sometimes the modern parallels are straightforward, explicit, and amusing. In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's "The Erlking," a mother worries whether she's applied to the right preschools for her daughter as they wander among fairies at a Waldorf school fair: "No one ever told her about the whole fairy component. And now look at what Ruthie is missing. Magic. Nature. Flower hair wreaths, floating playsilks, an unpolluted, media-free encountering of the world. The chance to spend her days binding books and acting out stories with wonderful wooden animals made in Germany" (p. 127). In Francesca Lia Block's "Psyche's Dark Night," Cupid and Psyche meet through an online dating service, and Psyche works through her relationship troubles with the help of a therapist. The Rumpelstiltskin of Neil LaBute's "With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold" develops an internet friendship with a young girl as a form of revenge.
Other stories feel modern in their preoccupations and themes, particularly the tales that shift their focus from the traditionally perfect protagonists to secondary characters who have been marginalized by society. The narrators of several of the tales, including "The Mermaid in the Tree" by Timothy Schaffert and "The White Cat" by Marjorie Sandor, are the women, not given voice in the traditional stories, who have been left behind by their husbands' pursuits of fairy tale creatures. In Kim Addonizio's "Ever After," the seven dwarfs share a loft as they wait for the happily ever after promised in the Book—a battered, rescued-from-a-dumpster copy of Snow White with pages missing—to arrive. But eventually even Doc, the most devoted believer in the Book as a prophecy, admits that there is probably no happy ending waiting for him.
Kevin Brockmeier's "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" takes as its inspiration one alternate ending of the Rumpelstiltskin story, in which he breaks himself in half with the violent stomp of his own foot. Now, Rumpelstiltskin is actually two halves, and the half that narrates Brockmeier's story "arches his body to walk from toe to palm and palm to toe. . . . When he walks, Half of Rumpelstiltskin looks as might a banana with feet at both ends" (p. 60).
Brockmeier's tale isn't the only one that considers the practicalities of life with a disability. Michael Cunningham's "The Wild Swans" picks up where the Hans Christian Andersen tale leaves off, with the twelfth brother, left with one human arm and one swan's wing thanks to a magic cloak that was missing one sleeve. Hurt by teasing from his royal brothers who've had both arms restored, the twelfth brother tries to make his way independently in the world. But life with one swan's wing is still challenging: "The wing was graceful but large—it was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice" (p. 150). Not an angle considered in the Hans Christian Andersen version, but Cunningham's story is still a tale of a lesson learned, as the twelfth brother figures out how to negotiate life encumbered by the wing.
Most of the retold tales play with plot and character while keeping the traditional structure of a story, but a few also play with form. Most notable in this regard is Neil Gaiman's "Orange," a retelling of The Odyssey. The story is framed as a series of answers to a questionnaire, but the questions aren't provided. As Gaiman explains in the commentary following his story, "sometimes answers and explanations in their turn can build mysteries, or leave behind spaces and empty places, and sometimes it is only if we know what the questions were that we can understand what the answers mean" (p. 441).
There are no true duds among the mix of original and previously published pieces collected by Bernheimer. But there were a few stories that felt, to me, frustratingly vague and experimental—where I wasn't entirely sure, to use Gaiman's phrase, what questions the writers were answering. In the case of Shelley Jackson's "The Swan Brothers," I had to refer back to the original fairy tale (the Grimms' "The Six Swans") in order to follow Jackson's story. I found Joyelle McSweeney's short play "The Warm Mouth," a retelling of the Grimms' "The Bremen Town Musicians," similarly confusing until I read the author commentary—though, again, readers more familiar with the original story might have an easier time.
With the exception of Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Karen Joy Fowler, most of the authors who contributed to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me are known as literary fiction writers. (A few, like Aimee Bender and Chris Adrian, have played with magical realism in previous stories and novels.) In general, their stories conform in both form and content to literary fiction conventions: a number of them, for example, take place in what feel like contemporary standard middle class settings. Most of the authors pay little attention to worldbuilding. But that makes their stories not so different from the original fairy tales that inspired them, where the settings, like the characters, are perhaps more relatable to the reader because they are less specific.
Genre readers might be disappointed by some of the stories, which contain hints of magic but rarely explain how that magic works or place it in fully realized settings. But ultimately, the collection is worth reading for the innovative modernizations of traditional tales and for the author commentaries that explain where those stories came from, shedding light on the writerly alchemy that is its own kind of magic.
Sara Polsky has written for The Forward, The Hartford Courant, The Writer, and other publications. Her fiction has appeared in Fictitious Force and Behind the Wainscot.
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