How to Fracture a Fairy Tale
Review by Laura Gregory
Fairy tales provide a connection across generations, cultures, and mediums. From the historic, often gruesome origin, to the DisneyTM-fied movie versions, they become a touchstone of common narrative through childhood memories. In this collection of short stories, Jane Yolen’s fairy tales have been repackaged for the modern reader, drawn together by an introduction by another modern fairy tale “fracturer”, Marissa Meyer of Cinder fame. The way Yolen creates the breaks is looking at the original material through a new lens, whether that be a different character point of view, a modern setting, or the collision of two or more myths. While the source material will be familiar to most, the prolific fantasy author adds a creative spin and original contribution to each one. With a title of How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, the reader is also provided with advice on how to take a crack at examining the old stories from new angles. Yolen fans may have read some of these short stories in other publications, however there is new content in the Notes section at the back of the book, where Yolen reflects on how she approached each short story and includes an additional poem inspired by the work.
“The Bridge’s Complaint” is based on “3 Billy Goats Gruff” and shows the originality of selecting a point of view character that is an essential part of the original tale, but had no voice or agency within it. In this quirky retelling, the bridge is not only cognizant of the trolls and goats criss-crossing across its span, but actually inadvertently contributes to the troll’s demise. Reading about the desires and experiences of a bridge’s life creates a character out of a plot mechanism and with fairy tales littered with glass slippers and poison apples, it makes one wonder how many other tales of inanimate objects are just waiting to be told.
“Cinder Elephant” is a more contemporary twist on “Cinderella”, but the period setting is unclear, because there are still princes and royal balls, but also football, baseball and golf. It has a feisty narrative with two bratty stepsisters and, while the setting is modern-ish and the title heroine is heavyset, it feels less a reimagining of the original tale as a superficial gloss on top of the standard tropes. But then that is the nature of working within established fairy tales, they at once becomes a jumping off point as well as a constraint. Veer too far from the original tale and then one has to wonder if it is still considered “fractured” or just new work. Another Cinderella inspired story in this collection is “The Moon Ribbon”, which starts similarly with a soot-covered maiden and then breaks out into an unique story with its own intriguing magical elements and atmosphere of mystery. There is a warm bond between mother and child that helps counter the evil step-mother and step-sisters and subverts the traditional ending of her having to rely on marriage to a prince to escape her fate.
“Slipping Sideways Through Eternity” is a powerful story that comes about from a mash-up of Yolen’s own novel The Devil’s Arithmetic and, as Yolen explains in the Notes, “an entirely different take on the role of Elijah in the stories from Jewish tradition.” Being unaware of the source material, I had no familiar reassurances of happily ever after as the story follows the protagonist as she travels back in time to a WWII era concentration camp. The details are vivid without the sheen of fantasy to soften them and while the ending is hopeful, the bittersweet story adds a resonate depth to the anthology.
How to Fracture a Fairy Tale is a catchy title but falls a little short to encapsulate the extent of folklore, myth and legend that is actually contained within its pages. When Yolen encourages the reader to imagine their own way to fracture a fairy tale, it leaves hope that there will be future stories that will cross diverse lines and cultures and perhaps break the mould of the protagonist always being a Princess and the evil parental always being the Step-Mother. Overall this collection ties in nostalgia of fairy tales of memory while invoking a desire to read the original material and track how far the tales have been twisted into the collective consciousness. And hopefully will encourage the reader to make an attempt to fracture their own favourite tale.