This book is an often-disturbing look at some classic children’s tales. If you’ve read much children’s literature, you know many of these stories are pretty creepy to begin with, like Grimm’s Cinderella where the sisters cut off their toes and heels to fit in the slippers, and Snow White where the evil queen is forced to dance to her death in burning shoes. These were moral tales, designed to scare children into behaving. In retelling these stories, Ortberg shines a light on the very things that are disturbing about these stories. It’s worth noting that the “every day horror” in these stories is much more psychological than physical (though in some stories it’s both).
Unlike many readers, I didn’t come to this book with any background knowledge of Ortberg, who is the writer, editor, and founder of feminist website The Toast (no longer online). Ortberg just came out as trans and is now Daniel Mallory Ortberg, which makes his many plays on gender in the book that much more relevant.
In truth, I’m not a huge fan of fairy tale retellings, or any retellings for that matter. I prefer original stories, but I liked how Ortberg turns a lot of the assumptions in these stories on their head. I particularly liked Daughter Cells, which tells the story of “The Little Mermaid” through the eyes of a slightly more empowered mermaid. And I liked “The Six Boy Coffins” based on “The Six Swans”, where a young girl has to suffer for years to rescue her brothers, including losing her voice and being forced into marriage. Ortberg makes us think about the gender assumptions in these stories – like the creepiness of men who want women who can’t speak for themselves.
“Being beautiful had never prevented her from remaining in the woods alone before, but there was nothing she could do about it. Beauty was what gave him the right to talk to her as if they had been introduced, and take her hand, and make her wear his cloak, and take him from her tree and to his home. She could not help herself from crying, just a little bit, at the ridiculousness of it all.”
I was intrigued by “The Wedding Party”, based loosely on “The Goose Girl”, because I enjoyed the dialogue between Allison and David, a couple who are about to be married. I can’t say I understood all of this story but it did keep my interest and I wanted more.
The one based on the Velveteen Rabbit was incredibly creepy, seen through the eyes of a Rabbit who wants to be real and will step on whoever he needs to in order to get there. I found that one to be the most interesting adaptation, because it reminded me that in fact I found the oh-so-feel-good The Velveteen Rabbit disturbing as a child, as only stories about thinking, feeling toys can be. The truth is that most of our beloved children’s stories are disturbing.
Some of the stories didn’t work at all for me, including the second and third ones, which almost made me put down the book. There’s a story based on Wind in the Willows that is psychologically disturbing, but there wasn’t enough there to make much sense. There’s a version of Beauty and the Beast that didn’t work well for me, because the character of Beauty wasn’t very likable and I just wasn’t sure what point Ortberg was making. I also didn’t like “Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters”, based on an Orkney folktale, which was quite violent. There are strong religious themes in some of the stories that also didn’t work well for me.
In general, I liked best the stories that were closest to the stories I already knew, where Ortberg just makes slight differences to highlight these stories’ dark underbellies – or in some cases, to give us an ending that’s feels a little more just.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Henry Holt and Co. The book was published on March 13, 2018.