Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Second Time Aroud: Cinderella

Some stories are told and re-told in hundreds of different ways; they're being constantly updated for new generations. Most fairy tales are hundreds of years old, but you can walk into any bookstore and find new versions of those old stories, written with today's kids in mind. Most people can probably name at least a dozen different film adaptations of Cinderella, one of the most popular fairy tales of all time. But some writers find ways to take even the oldest and most popular stories and flip them completely upside-down. The most convenient vehicle for re-telling an ancient story in a brand-new way is to simply change the point of view.

The Original 

Cinderella was first published not by the Brothers Grimm, but by a Frenchman named Charles Perrault. Rumor has it that one castle in France lays claims to being the inspiration for the fairy tale castle in the story, but in truth Cinderella's story is ancient. A story originating in Greece, circa 1st century BC, is credited with being the oldest version of the tale.

In most versions of the classic tale, Cinderella is the victimized stepdaughter whose father unfortunately died after becoming newly wed to a vicious woman with two ugly daughters. By contrast, Cinderella is beautiful and kind and good -- so naturally she's promptly put to work as a maid-of-all-work in the house. She sleeps by the hearth at night, so her name is Cinderella. When the kingdom's prince throws a ball with the express purpose of finding a wife, the two ugly stepsisters and the stepmother happily trip down the road to the castle, nastily keeping Cinderella from attending the event. 

 Her fairy godmother arrives  just when Cinderella gives into despair and cries. The young woman is dressed in a glorious gown and glass slippers, handed into a fancy carriage and thus gets to go to the ball. The prince immediately falls for her, of course, and spends the entire night dancing and chatting with her at the ball. She's so carried away, she's almost late for her midnight deadline. This forces her to run away, leaving behind one of those telltale glass slippers. 

After an epic search for just the right foot is conducted all across the land, Cinderella and her Prince Charming are wed. Naturally, the evil stepsisters and horrible stepmother are punished, and all is at last right with the world.

The Re-Telling

I could write a ton of posts about Gregory Maguire's books, but I'm only going to bring up one: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. It's a re-telling of the Cinderella story, but with one important twist: an ugly stepsister is the one narrating the tale. It's an amazing version of the classic tale, and if you haven't read it then you just don't know Cinderella.

The novel largely focuses on the life of Iris, younger daughter to Margarethe. Though she is the youngest in the family, Iris must take on many responsibilities because her sister, Ruth, is somewhat dim-witted, clumsy and apt to wander off on her own. They leave England to go to the Dutch town of Haarlem, North Holland. Their circumstances are not good, but Margarethe is crafty and cunning and soon has herself ensconced within the home of the town's richest resident as a cook/maid.

When she is not helping her mother or minding Ruth, Iris begins to learn painting with a master and his apprentice, Caspar. She is an unattractive child, but Iris has a spark of intelligence that others can see and a core of self-reliance that serves her well. Clara is the breathtakingly beautiful daughter of the Van Der Meer household, the richest in the town. When her mother dies, Margarethe cleverly inserts herself as the mistress of the house and Van Der Meer's new wife -- thus becoming stepmother to Clara. 

Of course there is a ball, and of course there is a prince, but there are lots of events that occur both at the ball and before that are never whispered about in the original tale of Cinderella. There is even some hope that Iris, and not Clara, may land the prince for herself...right up until the moment when the prince actually sees Clara, that is.

Of course you should not expect much of a happy ending -- Iris is, after all, one of the ugly stepsisters -- but Maguire throws in a surprising twist at the end that's really delightful (and you know how much I love twists). Confessions is truly a re-telling, and the story feels new and fresh even if it's a few thousand years old. Don't look for magic or talking mice or any of that mess -- this novel is presented as straightforward fact, and it's certainly written in a way that appeals to adults rather than very young children.

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