Monday, November 15, 2010

Review of A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Gidwitz, Adam. A Tale Dark and Grimm. Dutton, 2010.

A brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel, are born to a king and queen (and this is a tale in itself). Their happy childhood is, however, brought to an end when (due to one of those Grimm fairytale dilemmas) their own loving father chops off their heads. They are brought back to life, but, as they can't stomach the idea of having parents who would chop off their own children's heads, they run away.

Their journey is a dark and bloody one, meandering as it does through one lesser-known Grimm tale after another. Even the familiar tales (such as Hansel and Gretel) have an unfamiliar sinister, nasty edge to them, as Gidwitz is basing them on the original Grimm tales and not the sanitized ones that we know (and those can be creepy enough). People die in horrifying ways, including a great many innocent people of all ages, Gretel chops off her own finger, Hansel turns into a were-creature and is skinned alive, and so on. Blood flows, drips, and forms puddles. There is much agonized screaming.

Hansel and Gretel undergo awful travails, but what is most distressing to them is the constant disappointing behavior of the adults around them, starting with their own parents. Even when adults aren't actively trying to hurt the siblings or someone else, they can't seem to keep anyone from harm or to solve any problems. Hansel and Gretel are forced to take matters into their own hands again and again, while the weight of their bitterness and anger grows even as they become experienced and wise.

Our storyteller introduces these stories to us, warning us that they are dark and violent, and continues to break in occasionally with admonitions to get any little children away before reading the next part, comments on the story, and a couple of pointers on pronunciation. This running commentary is fairly common in both grim stories about children (as in A Series of Unfortunate Events) and in a certain type of fairy tale-derived fantasy (as in Frances O'Roark Dowell's Falling In), and it can be snarky, cutesy, or generally intrusive. Luckily, this particular prone-to-interruption narrator won me over with comments that are amusing, informative, and even insightful.

A reader may wonder what is the point of all the blood, violence, and general unhappiness in these tales and in Grimm's tales. Why must the characters go through so much hell (literally, in this case) to get to a happy ending? Our narrator says in the introduction, "It is the story of two children striving, and failing, and then not failing. It is the story of two children finding out the meaning of things...(I)n life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom." Life can be vile, in fairy tales and in reality, and it is up to each of us to make our own stories. It's not fair, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. In fairy tales of the grim, Grimm variety, this happens an awful lot, and lessons can be learned.

The fallibility and imperfection of adults, even one's parents, is one of those lessons. Though most kids don't have to learn the way Hansel and Gretel do, it's a shock nevertheless. And children do realize, despite the best efforts of their well-meaning parents to shield them, that nasty things happen in the real world. As readers of Bruno Betelheim know, reading bloody fairy tales is a way to portray a fictional, magical version of our violent world that children can think about and process in a safe way.

Why must the stories be quite so bloody? As our narrator himself asks at the end, "What did all of this mean - these strange, scary, dark, grim tales? I told you already. I don't know. Besides, even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide. No guide, that is, but courage."

I'm tempted to see in these stories an deliberate attempt to thwart our over-protective culture that keeps children inside and away from all danger, real and imagined. The author says in his acknowledgments that he himself had to learn "to trust that children can handle it. No matter what "it" is." Gidwitz may well be saying that children need to be allowed to explore and take risks so that they can grow and learn, something Michael Chabon has written about as well, bemoaning the loss of the "Wilderness of Childhood."

I agree that most older kids will handle these tales just fine. Bloody as they are, they are also imbued with wisdom. Highly recommended for kids ages 9 to 13. (hey - the narrator does warn us repeatedly about the especially nasty parts, so faint-hearted readers have only themselves to blame)

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