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Sympathy for the Stepmother

Snow White has always been my favorite fairy tale. It's so strange: that glass coffin in the forest, the stepmother asking for the princess's heart, the talking mirror voicing her deepest fears and desires. I saw the classic Disney film when I was very young, and I was as terrified by the sinister forest and poison-apple-bearing villainess as I was entranced by the beribboned princess and dashing prince. It's the perfect mix of that beauty and darkness at the heart of the best fairy tales. The Grimm and other older versions are even better (darker): the heart swapped out for lungs and liver, Snow White dying and coming back to life multiple times, in some versions the prince so in love with the seeming dead girl that he can barely leave her side to eat or sleep.

By the time I came to Snow White, though, I'd already reworked Cinderella (in my novel Godmother) and The Little Mermaid (in my novel Mermaid). My editor wanted another retelling and I was torn: I wanted to write something new (not a fairy tale!), but I felt excited by the idea of figuring out what I could do next. It's like putting together a puzzle: breaking the elements of these old stories apart, figuring out some wonderful new way to put them back together again, participating in story cycles that have travelled through so many centuries, from old-world firesides to elaborate French courts to Hollywood back lots.

I sat down one day and took a look at all the women from the stories I most love. I was first introduced to these tales through Disney; they're the versions that have the most powerful hold on me, and so I started with them. I love those tales; they helped shaped who I am — and I am painfully aware of how messed up they are, how they taught me (among other things) to long for dashing rescuers who would make everything okay. I have a complicated love-hate relationship with them, as I think many women do. It's a powerful thing to go in and reimagine the tales, to take these women and look into their strange hearts, figure out who they are, who they could be.It's a powerful thing to go in and reimagine the tales, to take these women and look into their strange hearts, figure out who they are, who they could be.

Snow White, the evil queen, Rapunzel, the witch Gothel who locks Rapunzel in the tower, Sleeping Beauty, the fairy who condemns Sleeping Beauty to death... I looked at the tales I had done already: Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, the Little Mermaid and the witch who cuts out her tongue. So many of these stories revolve around a charming yet damaged young woman and a powerful older woman who does her wrong, all those evil stepmothers and queens and witches, once-beautiful women now seething with anger, vengeance, and desperation. And it occurred to me: these are the same women, grown up. They're playing out some intense Oedipal mother-daughter competition — we know that from Bettelheim. Of course these girls will turn out just like their mothers and continue the cycle. How could they not, when all the power they have in the world is wrapped up in their fleeting youth and spectacular beauty?

I started shuffling the characters around and was surprised at how well the stories fit together. For example: imagine if Snow White grew up to be the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Snow White's own stepmother thought she was eating Snow White's body. Wouldn't it make sense for Snow White, as an old, old woman, to retreat to the forest and lure young children to her candy-coated cottage? Do we really grow up to live happily ever after, with no weird lingering trauma, when our parents want to eat us (or, if fairy tales just take ordinary horrors and exaggerate them, when whatever more mundane bad thing happens to us)? Plus, in the Grimm version, she does actually watch her evil stepmother get her comeuppance: by dancing in hot iron shoes until she falls over dead. At Snow White's own wedding.

When I fit Rapunzel and the evil stepmother from Snow White together, it made even more sense. They're both beautiful, they're both witches (Rapunzel is raised by a witch, so how could she not be one herself?), and presumably the stepmother was once young and in love and the fairest in the kingdom. What we don't see in the original Rapunzel story is what happens later, when she gets older and is a little less dazzling than she was before — and how it will make her suffer, her heart twist. All I had to do was manipulate a few details to throw Snow White in there, the ingénue who gets all the attention as Rapunzel herself is shunted to the side.

So that's how The Fairest of Them All came about: the story of Rapunzel growing up to be Snow White's stepmother. I think it's my last fairy tale, and I've been hard at work on two new projects that don't have an ounce of fairy tale in them: a noir/crime novel and a full-on historical novel about Dante's Beatrice set in 13th-century Italy. But who knows. What troubled me, when writing Fairest, was that as a woman who had just turned 40 (I'm now 42), it was now a little easier for me to relate to the evil queen than the young princess. That's when things get really complicated, and the love-hate thing gets even more intense: when you realize that if you yourself were in the story you grew up loving, you wouldn't be the young girl anymore. You'd be the one asking for her heart.

÷ ÷ ÷

Carolyn Turgeon is the author of Rain Village, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale, and the young adult novel The Next Full Moon. She is the editor of Mermaids, a special-edition annual magazine, and teaches writing in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Rain Village
    New Hardcover $23.95
  2. Godmother
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  3. Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. The Next Full Moon
    New Trade Paper $6.99
  5. The Fairest of Them All
    Used Trade Paper $7.50


Carolyn Turgeon is the author of The Fairest of Them All

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