Marie’s Reading: “The Witch and Other Tales Retold” by Jean Thompson

the witchIn her Author’s Note, Thompson says: “I have tried here to write a cycle of stories that are not recountings or versions of the old tales but something looser.  I wanted to recapture their magic, but in a way that used them only as a kind of scaffolding for new stories.”

No mere rehashing, bowdlerizing, or note-by-note retellings here.  Thompson does a wonderful job at capturing the essence of each tale, pinpointing the themes and primary concerns, and I think that’s what sets them apart from other retellings and rehashings of fairy tales.  You don’t even always know at the outset which story is being told, and I love that.

For instance, Hansel and Gretel becomes a story about two foster kids and the foster mother the girl does not like.  A story about a young woman who marries a much-older academic slowly begins to resemble Bluebeard.  Et cetera.  But always fresh, always with new angles, and never taking quite the path you might expect.

The writing itself is perfect for the stories.  Spare and simple and straightforward, with some nice insights and imagery thrown in to embroider a little.  They feel like they’d be good to read aloud, as most fairy- and folktales are.

If you like the feel and idea behind these retellings, you might like Gregory Maguire’s books.  Wicked is probably his best known, but his takes on Snow White (Mirror, Mirror) and Cinderella (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) are wonderful.  They can be taken as fairy tales or as historical fiction with a hint of magic, all with Maguire’s deft style, scene setting, and sense of character voice.

The recent novel While Beauty Slept might also be a good choice.  Written by Elizabeth Blackwell in steamy and compelling historical style, this retelling of Sleeping Beauty  has great characters, a fascinating narrator, and a definite turn for the macabre toward the end.



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