I have a long-time interest in adaptations of fairy tales, and so it surprised me that it took me so long to get through Tender Morsels, a strange and dark retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red.”
The beginning is promising. We meet Liga, mother of the “Snow White” and “Rose Red” characters, as a traumatized teenager. She is sexually abused by her father and later raped by town boys, and Margo Lanagan handles these sensitive topics well. The actual abuse is never described in detail, so it’s not sensationalistic. I had a lot of sympathy for Liga and was rooting for her survival. The prose has moments of exquisite beauty, but I should warn readers that there’s a lot of Scottish-style dialect in it, so it may not be every reader’s cup of tea.
Eventually, Liga is whisked away from her painful existence by a lunar entity. This sounds a lot like Robin McKinley‘s Deerskin on paper, but it’s written very differently and doesn’t feel like the same story at all. Liga is granted a “heaven,” a kinder and gentler world in which to raise her two daughters. Years later, one of the girls finds a way to cross back into the real world, and that’s when things really get complicated.
The original fairy tale includes a man transformed into a bear. At first, I really liked Lanagan’s take on this aspect of the story. The bears (there are multiple man-bears in the novel) are participants in an initiatory/fertility rite of sorts in which they enact the roles of bears. When they cross into Liga’s “heaven,” they become actual bears for the duration of their time there.
About two thirds of the way through Tender Morsels, I got bogged down. There is far too much time spent in the POVs of less-than-sympathetic characters, and a bit too much dwelling on the bear-men and their… ahem… affection for she-bears. I’ve seen reviews of Tender Morsels that blast the rape themes as too disturbing for teen readers, but that aspect doesn’t bother me. It’s not explicit, and sadly, there are too many kids who have actually experienced these horrors and might find a kindred spirit in Liga. The material about rape never squicked me, only saddened me. The bear-related material, however, hit some of my personal gross-out buttons.
It was at that point that I skipped ahead and read the ending. What I saw was intriguing enough that I went back and read the rest of the book, and yes, it gets better. The unsympathetic characters drop back to minor-character status, and the narrative returns to the characters we’ve come to care about. It all comes together in an ending that’s satisfying, if bittersweet. That said, Tender Morsels has one heck of a sagging middle, and in my opinion, would have been stronger if it had been about 100 pages shorter.
One more thing that sat wrong with me: There’s a dark-skinned character in this novel, and he’s a rapist. And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for his skin color, except maybe to make Urdda (the Rose Red character) look different from Branza (the Snow White character). Maybe it’s to explain Urdda’s “wildness,” too. I hope not, because the association of dark skin and wildness is a long-standing stereotype. I realize that in the original story, Rose Red was more daring than her sister, but I don’t see why she couldn’t have just been a redhead or brunette and had the same personality. Instead, there’s a racial aspect to the story that unsettled me. Urdda herself could be seen as an example of a positive character who is half black, but that still only adds up to two black characters, one of whom is a nasty piece of work. I think I’d have been more comfortable if Lanagan had included other positive nonwhite characters, or if she’d just made all the rapists white.