Thursday, January 24, 2013

Well-Spun Tale: A Book Review

Spinners, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

Disappointment splatters like mud on a new cloak.  The spinner is about to ask how wool yarn could possibly interest him, when the sun catches the strand that Elke holds out to him.  It sparkles off the white and goes thick and warm on the black.  The spinner takes the skein with respectful hands.  "Black and white together," he says, admiration making his voice rich.

"I knew you'd be impressed."  Elke interweaves her fingers.  "I knew it."  (Spinners 85)

I picked up Dona Jo Napoli's The Magic Circle because it had an illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon on the cover.  I read it because it was a re-telling of Hansel and Gretel.  I read Napoli and Richard Tchen's Spinners because I read The Magic Circle and because I love Rumpelstiltskin.

I was immediately sold by Ms. Napoli's lyrical prose in The Magic Circle.  Her present-tense writing is arresting, and counter-intuitive to a fairy tale.  But the sense of a fairy tale remains intact, in the distance despite a historical grounding (she keeps them German, near if not exactly in the 18th century).  She is vague enough about the details that one feels this may indeed have happened once upon a time, or any time.

Spinners didn't disappoint.  Like in The Magic Circle, we are permitted the villain's point-of-view, and he is altogether sympathetic (if not outright heroic as the witch is in TMC).  Tchen and Napoli's answers to the gripping questions that make this fairy tale so impactful, and my favorite, are original but organic.

The title character Rumpelstiltskin is referred to as "the spinner" throughout the story, making us conspirators and witnesses of the mystery of his name.  The cause of his littleness--he is actually lame in this telling--and his fierce, insidious desire for the queen's firstborn, is expertly woven.

This is an extremely human story, despite its element of fantasy.  Like in E. Nesbit's books, Spinners has really only one magical quality--transformation of straw into gold--and the rest of the narrative unfolds in relation to it.  While the straw-into-gold magic is essential to the plot, this isn't a story about magic.  It is a story about hubris, relationships, identity, and perseverance.

There are many moments of possible redemption that present themselves to the spinner; and each time, he turns away from them, whether from shame, impossibility to see worth in himself or others, or inability to forgive.

The miller's daughter, Saskia, is fleshed out as a character.  No longer the voiceless victim, she becomes admirable in her perseverance, and her emotional dilemma is presented in such a way that it is immediate and utterly believable.

A powerful tale that has given me fodder and affirmation for my own re-telling, and no less the fairy tale for its lack of a ribbon-tied happy ending, I highly recommend Spinners.  

P.S.  Unfortunately, I can't count this easy and enjoyable read toward my Fairy Tales Retold reading challenge goals because I read it before the new year!



  1. Hmmm... and I've had another friend recommend this to me as well. Guess I ought to put it on my list. ;)


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