One year after Tachyon Publications published The Emerald Circus, a collection of Jane Yolen‘s fantastical short stories based on various fairy tales and legendary people (both fictional and real), it has followed up with a similar collection, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018). Like The Emerald Circus, this is a compilation of Yolen’s older, previously published stories, spiffed up with new author’s notes in which Yolen briefly discuss each story and how she “fractured” it with significant departures from its original source material. These end notes for each story also include a poem by Yolen that’s linked to the same original source material. The source material varies widely, including fairy tales (Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid), vampires, Scottish selkies, Chinese dragons, Greek and Native American legends, and much more.
These twenty-eight reimagined fairy tales and legends also vary greatly in tone. When I finished this collection my first thought was, wow, what a bleak bunch of stories. Looking back on the individual stories, though, it turns out only about eleven or twelve of them (yes, I counted) are really downbeat. That number does include several stories right at the end of the collection, which may explain the somber feeling I had when I finished. One of my favorite stories, though, was one of this set: “Mama Gone,” the story of an Appalachian girl whose mother has died and become a vampire. It’s heartbreaking but surprisingly tender, with a bittersweet note.
One of the themes that surfaces a few times in this collection is the history of Jewish persecution, reflecting Yolen’s Jewish heritage. My favorite of these was “Slipping Sideways Through Eternity,” an unlikely combination of time travel, a quirky Elijah, and the Holocaust, experienced by a modern day Jewish girl with a talent for art. “Granny Rumple” also draws on the historic oppression of Jews, making a thought-provoking connection between that and the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.
Several of these stories deal with the terrible things people do to each other. Sometimes there’s a happy or at least satisfying ending (as in “Green Plague,” a humorous variation on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln), but often not. If you thought Robin McKinley’s Deerskin (a retelling of Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin), was tough to read, with its incest-based plot, Yolen’s similar “Allerleirauh” is even more tragic. At least it was very short! As was “The Gwynhfar,” an equally harrowing tale of another type of abuse.
On the other end of the scale, there are five or six quite humorous tales to lighten things up. My favorites of these were “Cinder Elephant,” a charming tale starring a cheerfully overweight Cinderella, and “Sleeping Ugly,” a humorous twist on Sleeping Beauty:
Princess Miserella was a beautiful princess if you counted her eyes and nose and mouth and all the way down to her toes. But inside, where it was hard to see, she was the meanest, wickedest, and most worthless princess around. She liked stepping on dogs. She kicked kittens. She threw pies in the cook’s face.
The ending of “Sleeping Ugly” left me grinning, as did a sudden twist in “Snow in Summer” (a Snow White story that’s similar to but not to be confused with Yolen’s novel of the same name, which is based on this earlier story).
Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed The Emerald Circus more. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale contains a dozen more stories than the sixteen in that prior collection, but the stories in The Emerald Circus were longer ones that engaged me more as a reader. (Plus: not generally as bleak as this set.) Still, there are some excellent stories in this collection, and if you’re a fan of Jane Yolen’s brand of story-telling, this is worth checking out.
Stories with a fairy tale influence or ones that seek to retell the familiar are something I gravitate towards. I like the idea of retelling a story to frame it in a new way or take it to a surprising place: the ‘lore’ part of folklore can say so much about a cultural place and time. That’s why the title of this collection piqued my interest, even though I haven’t read much of Jane Yolen’s work in the past. I was drawn to the idea of ‘fracturing’ a fairy tale, taking the concept of a retelling a little further into the strange and exciting.
But like Tadiana said in her review, this collection quickly feels like it’s full of bleak stories, even if by the numbers it isn’t. I could say that the dark themes reflect the nature of the source material — that fairy tales are much more twisted than the Disney-ified versions we may recognize — but that wouldn’t be quite true. Yes, some tales are darker than they seem, but many are also driving at moral learnings and others still are truly nonsensical, fanciful stories told for fun. This collection, though, is about fracturing familiar tales, making fundamental changes to create something new, and so I hesitate to take deliberate choices away from Yolen by overstating the darker themes as being inherent in the stories: she takes them to those places purposefully, and in some cases, to the detriment of the collection.
I have a lot of thoughts about specific stories in this collection, so I’ve sorted them into categories. Part 1 is about the stories I recommend seeking out, Part 2 is the stories that I may not have loved but I still had something I wanted to say about them, and in Part 3, I address the specific stories that brought a bleak atmosphere to the collection.
“Cinder Elephant” is an interesting Cinderella retelling with an untethered-from-time feel — there are running shoes in size 5 narrow and dieting and sports, but also a prince and a kingdom. The main character is fat, which the evil stepmother and stepsisters scorn of course, but instead of a fairy godmother, there are helpful birds. “Cinder Elephant” tries to solve the slipper problem without fairy tale logic, and it ends with spelled out morals that are a little more playful than in vintage fairy tales.
I also thought “The Bridge’s Complaint” was inventive. It’s a retelling — or, more specific to this collection, a fracturing — of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. I thought it was a genuinely fun read and the centering of the bridge and the troll in the story was something I enjoyed.
“Granny Rumple” is, as the name suggests, a take on Rumpelstiltskin, but more realistic (and tragic). The story is told as an old family story spoken to the reader by the author, and it pointedly engages with the question of how who tells the story — any story — shapes the story.
“Mama Gone” answers the question: “what if a vampire story, but like a fairy tale?” I thoroughly enjoyed this bittersweet story, steeped in folkloric fears and superstitions that reaches an ultimately touching end. I worried that I liked this story so much on the first read because it followed so much despair, but upon a solo revisit, I found that I still enjoyed it.
“The Faery Flag” takes place on the Isle of Skye and is, by contrast, something of a tame faery story, and I liked it. About halfway through, I had an ‘oh no’ moment when I thought I knew where the story was going, but I was happy to find it deviate from the script and do something more kind with the characters. [Highlight the following text to view a spoiler:] Specifically, there is a prince who is obsessed with a fairy maiden and he finds out that she returned to see her (their) son because the son was crying. I thought this would leave things wide open for a horrible corruption of man story (which can be a theme in folklore, like crane wives or selkies,) but it didn’t go there! Abuse stories of that nature aren’t my favourite thing, and by avoiding those pitfalls, the story subverted a very specific genre trope. Overall, “The Faery Flag” has the haunted dream-like quality I love in faery stories that I think gets passed over or dropped from other retellings. I want to read faeries with a misty, faraway look in my eyes and this story delivered that for me.
“One Old Man, with Seals” was another I quite liked. It’s a great Greek myth backstory, has solid characterization all around, and a good feel for motivations and plot movement. I will acknowledge that it gets very neatly tied up, perhaps too neatly for some; but I found it fable-like in that way.
“Slipping Sideways Through Eternity” is a sucker punch to the gut featuring a Jewish girl, time travel, art, and the Holocaust. There is undoubtedly a depth to this story I can’t access as a non-Jewish person, and it is still one of the standouts in the collection for me. Where the plot is simple the layers of the characters are complex and engaging.
I wanted to like “Sun/Flight” more than I did. It’s a continuation of the Icarus myth (he who flew too close to the sun), and it’s clever, ingenious even, but it takes great pains to remove the empathy we may have for the original Icarus. In the original tale, at least how I’ve heard it, the tragedy is understandable: Icarus doesn’t listen to level reason at a moment of intense joy at being free. In “Sun/Flight,” it’s made very clear that he’s not a good person, but I couldn’t figure out to what end. Where the original story is sad, this one left me indifferent because I just didn’t care about Icarus due to his actions.
“Once A Good Man” is a simple (if heavy handed) story about being a good person. It has extremely religious overtones which reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen stories, and the moral take-away did make me roll my eyes a bit; it’s just so on-the-nose and preachy as to be unenjoyable.
“Green Plague” stuck out to me for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, it’s the second story in a row to have a history/story pun at its centre, which just isn’t something I care for. It goes on its merry way as a retelling of the Pied Piper, and then ends bizarrely on two toad puns in a row. It’s a weird one, but it also felt incongruous to the collection so far. I found it extremely silly without being fun; but I’m personally not a fan of puns, so take that as you will.
Content warnings in this section include: sexual assault (incest, rape, and forced pregnancy among them), depictions of concentration camps, and child abuse. Any place I get into these themes I’ll mark with a spoilers tag so that you may choose if you want to read about my thoughts with regards to these themes or not.
Up to now, I’ve discussed sad stories, truly silly ones, and a couple thoughtful or interesting takes on familiar tales. As I worked my way through the collection, though, I started to notice a new set of themes arising around abuse and, specifically, the abuse of women. “The Foxwife” is an example of the latter. From my reading of this story adapted from Japanese folklore around fox-women, it’s a story about a man learning how to not be abusive by… abusing a woman [Highlight to view spoiler:] on a deserted island where no one could help her. After the thoughtfulness of some of the preceding tales, this one felt not only flatly one-note, but truly questionable at best. Spoilers and content warning for talking about abuse: I fully understand that abuse need not have a narrative purpose to happen in a story — it can be reflective of life, in that some people abuse others for no reason. However, the nature of this tale truly hinged upon the man abusing the fox woman and only learning that he shouldn’t when she is no longer in the picture. The takeaway that some women have to die as learning opportunities for abusive men is not something I expected to see in this collection, and I’m frankly disgusted to see it here.
“The Golden Balls”, a retelling of The Princess and the Frog, skips everything that’s fanciful about the original and gives the story the ‘unreasonably bleak’ treatment. Spoilers and content warning for mention of rape: essentially, the princess makes an agreement with a frog, thinking she could probably get out of the agreement later, but ends up agreeing to marry him. Well, her father (the king) forbids her from skipping out on the frog and fairly directly says to suck it up, the frog’s her husband now so if he wants to rape her, that’s fine. This is of course exactly what happens (even though the frog is still a literal frog: the whole transformation bit doesn’t happen). This story essentially says, ‘rape happens, and women have no power to stop it,’ which is a horrifying take on this or any story. When I think about retelling a story, a large part of that practice is about illustrating something from the original in a new and illuminating way. Maybe Yolen and I differ on that though, because when Yolen goes for these darker tones, they feel utterly pointless to me. I am aware that senseless violence against women exists, and even that it exists in these old stories, but I’m honestly not sure who this story, and the others like it that frame out violence in the worst way possible, are for.
Picking up where the last story left off, “Sule Skerry” is another tale in this collection that centres on sexual violence. Spoilers and content warning for rape of a minor: this selkie story is set in Scotland during WWII. The 16-year-old protagonist (aged specifically by how she thinks she’ll be able to marry her sweetheart, who her family doesn’t like, without their permission soon) is sent away from her home to live in Scotland with extended family. One day, while exploring some ocean side caves, she comes across a man who, to the reader, is clearly a selkie. He is seemingly unconscious in a cave and totally naked. She goes into a kind of trance where it is unclear if she is in control of her actions (I read this as her being coerced by magical means), and then rape occurs. She wakes up hours later, having totally blacked out, and as she makes her way back to where she is staying (where there is a brief conversation with some adult men who don’t believe her when she says there was a man in a cave, which again, yikes), she thinks about how great it is that she’s pregnant because now her family will have to let her marry her sweetheart — who we of course learn is a decade older than her. While gender-swapping a selkie story could be an intriguing proposal, this one didn’t utilize the concept in an interesting way. There are many layers of uncomfortable bleakness to this story and I can’t recommend it.
“Allerleirauh” is a take on Snow White (or Cinderella; both fit the bill in different ways), but with sexual violence at its center. Spoilers and content warning for rape, incest, and complications due to childbirth: this is another story that characterizes women as having no power and being at the mercy of the whims of the men in their lives. When the main character’s mother dies, her father (the king) is devastated. As the girl grows up, however, he notices how much she looks like her mother, and when his advisors tell him to throw a ball so that he may find/choose a new queen, he orchestrates things so that he can choose his daughter as his next wife. In a truly awful twist, she dies in childbirth, but the king doesn’t really care because the child is a girl, so he’ll have a new wife in a few years. Of all the tales with sexual violence against women at their center, this one made me wonder if I had gotten confused and entered a horror anthology. The through-line of women’s lack of power in these relationships, and the violence they endure because of the men around them, is tiring at best and horrifyingly bleak here.
“The Gwynhfar” is an origin story of Guinevere of King Arthur fame. It presents her as a child taken into the custody of Merlin, who raises her with very little contact with the outside world so that she’ll be perfect for her ‘destiny’. Spoilers and content warning for child abuse: Merlin is given Guinevere because she is remarkable to look at, being extremely pale with white hair and eyes (making her blind). This idea exists in other faerie stories, and I hoped this one was going in a teacher-student relationship direction (with her being a magical entity and all) rather than where it went. Merlin, with his wisdom of the future, has Guinevere raised in a cave underground, without being taught how to speak until she can be married off to Arthur. Can someone who has been raised in such a way give consent? I’m thinking no, but the story doesn’t get there so instead we simply have the ‘child abuse for a noble cause’ to muse on. I thought about trying to encapsulate what I don’t like about this group of stories about how little power women and girls have, but they each come at it in differently bleak ways. Needless to say, I didn’t care for this story either.
The last story I’ll mention is “The Woman Who Loved A Bear”. This one also left a bad taste in my mouth. It, like many of the others I didn’t like, has a rape plot point that gets treated as a matter of course. It also falls into a pitfall that is commonly found when someone who is not indigenous to North America (or Turtle Island) attempts to tell an indigenous story. This retelling plays heavily to the ‘noble savage’ trope, and the mythologization of Turtle Island indigenous peoples has a long, racist history that I was disappointed to see represented here as well, especially with the kidnapping and sexual assault plot of this story.
The long stretch of abuse stories in the second half soured me to this collection, and the sudden shift in tone was surprising in the worst way. If this collection had something like section headings with a brief talk about what was ahead, it would at least prepare the reader for the tonal shifts. However, my main issue with the collection is not the dark tone of some of the stories, but the tropes and assumptions therein: I keep using the word ‘bleak’ because I think Tadiana nailed it with that description. I’m by no means saying a story must be happy to be good, but these stories have some takeaways that, to me, reduce the agency of women and girls to virtually nothing.
One last part of this collection that didn’t work for me was having the author’s notes at the end, along with the poetry that ties into each story. To be honest, this is where I DNF’d the collection. The final several stories had burnt me out and I was no longer interested in what the author had to say about each story. Had everything been packaged together (story, author’s note, and poem for each), I may have come away from this collection with a different impression. As it stands, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale didn’t work for me.