My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
by Kate Bernheimer
Reviewed by Rudi Dornemann
A pedant might object to the subtitle of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, since most of the selections in this anthology edited by Fairy Tale Review founder and editor Kate Bernheimer are in fact retellings of tales, and the couple that are new draw heavily on existing tales. However, our hypothetical pedant would be missing that the magic of fairy tales is in how the story becomes new again with each telling, and the forty authors assembled here certainly bring all kinds of newness to their tales.
The variety of approaches to reinvention is even wider than one might expect from a list of contributors diverse enough to include Rikki Ducornet, John Updike, Joy Williams, and Kelly Link. This is most obvious in cases where two writers take on the same fairy tale -- for instance, Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid inspires both Timothy Schaffert's phantasmagorical "The Mermaid" and Katherine Vaz's equally arresting but far more conventionally realistic "What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone."
It's almost a literary Rorschach test to see which elements of the original tales resonate with the contributors and how they spin something new from those elements. Some of the new tales follow recognizable outlines of the old versions, at times in something like traditional fairy tale trappings (Lucy Corin's "Eyes of Dogs"), at times in modern guise (Shelley Jackson's "The Swan Brothers"), and at times in a fantastic conflation of the two (Michael Martone's "A Bucket of Warm Spit"). Other authors create a tension between a contemporary setting and the core of the original story within. Francesca Lia Block does this to good effect in "Psyche's Dark Night," balancing her protagonists' emotional uncertainty with undercurrents that resonate beyond the story's surface content.
Sometimes, inspiration comes out at a more oblique angle. In Jim Shepard's "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay," the essence of a character from an Italian folktale retold by Italo Calvino sprouts a story that's entirely different, though it shares something of the same spirit. In others, the original fairy tales themselves appear in the new tale, with an air of the talismanic as well as the metafictional. In Karen Brennan's "The Snow Queen," the main character has an uneasy relationship with the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, while the characters in Kim Addonizio's "Ever After" organize their lives around the fragments of a Disney retelling of another tale.
Occasionally, the author follows a tale past its traditional end, as Kevin Brockmeier does in "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin," a story that moves well beyond the concept outlined in the title. Aimee Bender's "Color Master" likewise expands the backstory of some wondrous garments in Charles Perrault's "Donkeyskin" into a story that has no trouble standing on its own. A few authors create new tales from bits of several existing tales, as Kelly Link does in "Catskin" and Naoko Awa does in "First Day of Snow," or tap into archetypal fairy tale characters, as Stacey Richter does with a princess and her prince in "Case Study in Emergency Room Procedure in an Urban Facility."
For all this variety, one unifying thread is that so many of the writers are working from something that touched them deeply in the original -- in many cases, something that's stayed with them since they read or heard the tales as children. While the stories in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me may not haunt their readers for entire lifetimes, the chances are good that a few of these new tales will linger around the edges of their minds a lot longer than expected -- and that, of course, upholds the best fairy tale traditions.