What I’m Reading Now (October 2017)

I’m reading Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth’s “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales” now.

Jacob Grimm said of Schonwerth, “No one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse.”

Here’s a great quotation from the introduction:

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Tra-la! It’s May

It’s been a busy, successful Spring.

I have two exciting announcements:

My story, “The Good Neighbors” has been published in Wild Musette Journal. Wild Musette is a home for “Dancers, Dreamers, Drummers, [and] Readers.” They offer books, short stories, cards, coloring books, and poetry. They are organizing an Irish Dance Vacation to County Sligo, Ireland in July 2018. I’m so proud and happy to be a part of this community.

“The Good Neighbors” is a story about the fey disrupting a young marriage. Set in Boston, the young woman protagonist studies Library Science at Simmons College–where I myself studied and earned my MLS. The rest of the story is fiction. Purchase a copy of Wild Musette Journal Issue #1701 to read my story.

 

Issue 1701

My poem, “The Faerie Queen” has been published in the Beltane 2017 issue of Three Drops From A Cauldron. Read it online for free, or purchase a copy.

More good news coming soon. Stay tuned!

 

 

The Snow Child: Thawing Frozen Hearts [Book Review]

Eowyn Ivy’s The Snow Child is one of those quiet books that resonate within you after you have closed the last chapter. This thoroughly American retelling of the Russian folktale “The Snow Maiden” is at its heart a story about families, grief, and reconnection.  Connection is what makes us human, even connection with a not-quite-feral snow child, a ghost-like orphan raising herself in the cold wilderness who arrives in Winter and leaves in Spring and comes and goes as she pleases. This is historical realistic fiction with a mythic twist, fully rooted in the real world of 1920’s Alaska.

The book opens grippingly with Mabel’s ambivalent suicide attempt, a walk across a frozen Alaskan river. She hopes to break through the ice, a tragic accident, unprovable as suicide. But the ice holds, and she returns home, still carrying her grief and a heart as frozen as the river.

She and her husband Jack left sophisticated Philadelphia to start over after miscarriage, and Alaska proves to be more of a challenge than they expected. When Jack is injured in a farm accident, they are forced to rely on their “closest” neighbors, Esther and George Benson. (“Closest” is a relative term in remote Alaska; the Bensons live quite a distance downriver.) Guarded politeness develops into real friendship. In adversity we are forced into accepting help. A deep bond forms.

Mabel learns friendship and trust again, and through Faina, their “snow child,” she learns to love. First by believing in, and then by accepting and parenting Faina with Jack, what was once a grief-damaged perfunctory marriage blossoms again.  In time, Faina shows herself to the Bensons, and Esther realizes the snow child is real and not the product of grief. The Snow Child evolves into a multi-generational tale.

Like all folktales, The Snow Child conveys a powerful truth: through connection we are healed; through connection we become human.

 

Read an Excerpt.

E.863-1980, Colour lithograph from a set of 50 by Ivan D. Suitin (or Suytin) entitled ‘Narodnuiya Kartinui’ [Russian Folk Pictures], mounted on card and published in Moscow, ca. 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Further Reading

Crescente, Joe. “Kostroma: The Home of Russia’s Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.” RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines) December 11, 2014.

Hibbard, Ruth. “A Shifting Snow Maiden” [blog article]. Victoria and Albert Museum. December 19, 2015. Online.

Lang, Andrew. The Pink Fairy Book. “Snowflake.”  1889. Online.

Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter’s Russian Tales. “The Little Daughter of the Snow.”  1916. Online.

 

 

Follow these Breadcrumbs to a Magical Fairy-tale Novel [Book Review]

breadcrumbs-cover

Sometimes people change. Friends change. Marriages end. People move. Sometimes loved ones with problems, or friends in trouble, don’t want to be saved. These are the heartbreaking truths of adulthood that Anne Ursu beautifully and brilliantly explores in her mid-grade novel Breadcrumbs.

It’s hard for boys and girls to stay best friends as they grow older. Jack is the only person Hazel knows who has a real imagination. Once they played tea parties in the Arctic or Wonderland or outer space and invented superhero baseball (because superheroes need organized sports too), but lately Jack’s started playing capture the flag and football with the boys at fifth grade recess.

“Sometimes your friends change,” Hazel’s mother tries explaining. “Sometimes when you get older you grow apart” (86). The astute reader knows that the mother could as easily be speaking of her own divorce.  As a divorced woman myself, this double theme of loss struck me deeply; I identified with both Hazel and her mother. (I cried.)

Because of the divorce, the change in family finances lands Hazel in public school for the first time. Public school, unlike her previous school, stresses rules over creativity; she has trouble adjusting. She learns that “school [is] very easy … if you just disconnected your heart.” (117).  At the same time, Jack’s mother’s chronic depression turns his heart cold, and in true fairy-tale fashion he goes off with the white witch into an enchanted frozen woods, “and by the time [he] came to her palace, he felt nothing at all” (112). Hazel knows she is the only one who can save him.

erin-mcguire-breadcrumbs-art

Drawing by Erin McGuire

By fairy-tale, I don’t mean sanitized and happily-ever-after. Ursu’s book is breathtakingly beautiful, a moving retelling of “The Snow Queen” and a superb homage to her forbearers with her delightful allusions to “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Swan Maiden” and of course “Hansel and Gretel” and others.

Every quest is a journey into self-knowledge, and Hazel comes to realize that just “because someone needed saving” it doesn’t mean that “they were savable” (247). The term codependence never appears in the text: Hazel is a strong heroine, a “brave knight” and not a victim — Jack must and does participate in his own saving. I still applaud Ursu for introducing to readers the truth that I hope every young woman learns before adulthood: one cannot save another.

The themes of friendship and belonging are seamlessly intermingled with questions of identity, adoption, skin color, and parental problems (depression; grief) in a rich, multilayered and fully realized whole.  Brava. Stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.

An exquisite gem. Recommended for all fairy tale girls and women.

 

Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins. 2011. Print.

A Discussion Guide is available on the author’s website.

Hornets and Mines: When Folktales Meet History

There’s an old Russian legend about St. Nicholas’ Day collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev:

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

Some peasants worked for a foreign steward, and the foreigner did not follow the Orthodox faith or observe the Russian holidays. He made the peasants work all the time.

One day the village elder came to the Estate house and spoke to the steward. “Tomorrow is St. Nicholas’ Day and we are forbidden to work.”

“Who is St. Nicholas?” the steward scoffed. “Show him to me.”

The village elder brought him an icon of the saint.

“This is just a wooden board” the steward persisted. “It can’t do anything to me. I shall work, and so shall you all.”

So the peasants worked the Estate, keeping St. Nicholas in their hearts and minds that day. But they soon decided to play a trick on the foreign steward.

A few months later, the elder walked up to the Estate house again.  “Tomorrow we have a holiday,” he informed the steward.

“Who is it this time?”

“St. Hornet’s Day.”

“Who is he? Show him to me.”

The elder brought the steward to a hollow tree in which hornets had built a nest. “There he is,” he told the steward.

The steward peeped through the cracks in the bark. He heard humming and buzzing but could see nothing. “How he sings!”  he exclaimed. “He must have drunk too much vodka. Nonetheless, I am not afraid of him, and you all must work.”

As he spoke, the hornets flew out of the hollows and stung him in a great swarm.  The steward screamed at the top of his lungs. “I swear I won’t order you to work. I too shall rest. Take the whole week off.”

And that is how the peasants outwitted the harsh steward.

(Adapted by Cynthia June Long)

I couldn't find hornets, so here are some bees. "Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man." 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain

          I couldn’t find hornets, so here are some bees.                       “Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man.” 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain

 

~         ~         ~

            An amusing tale, good for a few chuckles, and like much oral tradition, no doubt with its origins in a reality Russian peasants would have faced working for a foreigner. I’m partial to stories about the underdog or trickster. My favorite heroes are those who overcome an adversary through wit.

However, history bears an unexpected somber resemblance to this folktale: in 1907 real-life tragedy struck down 239 lives while those who kept a holy feast day were spared. In December 1907, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day saved more than 200 Carpatho-Russian miners in Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania.

They worked long, hard, unsafe days in the Darr Mine on the west side of the Youghioheny River, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  They lost a day’s wages to attend church and keep the feast.  On December 19, 1907, in the middle of the liturgy, around 11:30 a.m., a loud rumble preceded an explosion which spewed thick smoke and shook the ground for miles. Immediately everyone knew what had happened.  The mine had exploded. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “Scores Dodged Death by Going to Church Instead of to Work.” The survivors considered it a Miracle of St. Nicholas. A few years after the disaster, ~1911, St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek was founded to honor the saint’s intervention that fateful day. A commemorative icon was created later.

darr-mine-pi-cropped-2

At least 239 men lost their lives in the Darr mine; the period newspaper accounts are gruesome, describing unidentifiable remains and worse. Very Rev. Dr. Edward Pehanich, pastor of the Jacob’s Creek St. Nicholas Church, was quoted by the Pittsburgh area Tribune-Review on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the event: “We certainly don’t believe that those who were saved were better than those who died, but for whatever reason, St. Nicholas prayed to save those miners. . . If it wasn’t for the service that day, another 200 men would have lost their lives.”

December 1907 was one of the bloodiest months in U.S. mining history, and over 700 miners died that month throughout the United States. The national total for 1907 was 3200 lives lost in mining accidents.  Workplace safety rules followed on the heels of these mining disasters. Even so, forty-fivc years later in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, my own grandfather would die from the coal miner’s ‘black lung’; my father was only 13 years old at the time. It was—and is—a brutal profession.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also reports great drunkenness in the Jacobs Creek area that December 1907 night: “Some of the men . . .got a good start on account of the holiday, continuing their carousal after the explosion in celebration of their escape.”  Constables were called in, and the only tavern within two miles was asked to close down throughout the several days duration of the recovery operation.

The folktale steward reconsidered his viewpoint after a painful encounter with hornets. It took 700+ deaths to begin to reform the mining industry. In my younger years, I would postpone filling up the car gas tank and then find myself a week later praying like mad that I’d be able to make it back to a gas station in time. A few times—I hate admitting it—I cut it too closely and unexpectedly rolled to a stop on the side of the road.  Then I’d repeat the cycle a few weeks or months later. (It’s a Jersey Girl thing; after over twenty years living in Philadelphia, I still can barely accept the fact that I have to pump my own gas here.)

How many car accidents have I ‘miraculously’ escaped?  One day I might be stung by a hornet and another day, spared from death or injury. Feast day or work day, December 6 or December 19 or any day at all, I pledge to celebrate each day as a gift.

 

Sources and Resources

Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. “The Foolish German.” Russian Fairy Tales. N.Y.:  Pantheon Books, 1945, 1973. Print.

“Blames Coroner Juries.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 75. September 13, 1908. p. 5A.

“Buried in Wrecked Mine 250 Men Are Probably Dead.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 157 n. 173. December 20, 1907. p. 1-2.

Centennial of the Miracle of St. Nicholas, Jacobs Creek.” Holland, MI: St. Nicholas Center. Web. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/centennial

Darr Mine Disaster Historical Marker.” n.d. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Web.

“Experts To Probe Mine Disasters.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 27. July 27, 1908. p. 8.

Reeger, Jennifer. “New Exhibit Remembers 1907 Darr Mine Disaster.”  Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. 2007. Web.

Storey, Jerry. “Orthodox Faithful Endure In the Face of Mine Disaster, Church Fire.” Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. n.d. Web.

Snow White Meets True Grit

six-gun-snow-white-2

Catherynne M. Valente’s Six Gun Snow White is, as the title implies, a fractured fairy tale, a Snow White recast in the Western genre. The feminist elements are strong, but the best way to describe this fast-paced novel is Snow White meets True Grit. Consider their opening sentences:

               “I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H. married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver. It don’t trouble me none if any soul calls me a liar.”

and

               “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

Can you tell which is which?

If you’ve seen the 2010 film adaptation starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and the talented Hailee Steinfeld, you may recognize the opening voice-over of the movie as the opening paragraph from the 1968 Charles Portis novel, reproduced here in the latter paragraph above. Six Gun Snow White creates a stronger, harder Mattie Ross, a young woman who over the course of several years (instead of the few months’ journey of Portis’ book) travels from innocence to experience.

mattie-tg

                 Snow White is a half-native woman whose mother was forcibly taken from her tribe and who died giving birth to Snow. The stepmother Mrs. H hates her for many reasons, not only for her beauty, but also her mixed heritage. Racism is real in this fairy tale, and Mrs. H tries to bleach her skin white by making Snow White bathe in milk.

Her gun Snow White calls Rose Red. The huntsman sent to track her is a Pinkerton detective. Her horse she has named Charming. The ‘dwarves’ are seven outlaw women living in a makeshift town in Montana Territory, outcasts from society who form their own ‘feminist collective’—not that they would ever call it that.

The first enchantment: a poisoned cigarette, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revives her.

The second enchantment: poisoned whiskey, and the gag-reflex saves her.

The third enchantment you will have to read for yourself, but it is entirely fitting if unexpected ending. No savior prince, as you might expect from this modern retelling, but a more-or-less happily-ever-after all the same.

The tone is flawless. The language is precise, perfect, heartbreaking. Snow White informs the reader that “a stepmother is like a bullet you can’t dig out” (38) and the outlaw ladies tell Snow, “Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone” (105). The author maintains a breathtaking control of language.

When Snow White runs away, she thinks, “Fuck that mirror and fuck that house.” (67). I was surprised and delightfully shocked by the unexpected profanity; if the reader didn’t realize it before, this ain’t no fairy tale.

I am myself an emotional orphan, and Valente exquisitely expresses the longing for a mother who loves you. One of the outlaws tells Snow White: “You’re grown—crooked and backbent, but grown—and it’s time to stop hanging your heart on your mother” (111). [I cried here.]

The novel also captures the flavor of Native American folklore in the chapter titles such as “Snow White Secures Fire” and “Snow White’s Stepmother Gives Birth To The Sky.” At 153 pages, this is a quick read. Periodic illustrations by Charlie Bowater add to its appeal, and like a good children’s picture book, the illustrations collaborate with the text in telling the story.

Illustration by Charlie Bowater

Snow White cheats at cards. Illustration by Charlie Bowater

This a beautiful book, and every fairy-tale aficionado will want to read it.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.