How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales
by Kate Bernheimer
Coffee House Press, 2014
158 pages, $15.95
reviewed by James R. Gapinski
Kate Bernheimer’s How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales takes the classic idea of a fairy tale and injects contemporary life into the mix. In Hollywood terms, you might call this book a ‘reboot’ of the fairy tale genre. As with any reboot, you need to honor the original while still making the idea ‘new.’ In Bernheimer’s case, she’s aware that most people associate fairy tales with children (thanks, Disney), and she doesn’t ignore this preconception. In some stories, Bernheimer’s sense of childhood wonder is readily apparent—readers are swept into stories of witches, modern dinosaurs, and talking dolls, and our rational adult minds don’t stop to question these absurdities. In others, the childish perspective is subtler. For example, the main character in “The Librarian’s Tale” manages the circulation desk by day and sleeps in a secret library room at night. It seems a bit odd at first, unless you think back to grade school, imagining children who might believe their teachers live at school. In this innocent mindset, the librarian must live at the library. It only makes sense. Why wouldn’t she live there? There’s an internal logic to the otherwise illogical veneer.
Although these stories are often innocent, don’t mistake them for naïve. After all, Bernheimer’s title story is about weaning girls from magic and wonder rather than encouraging such pursuits. This collection pairs youthful innocence with sobering realities. I’m reminded of a passage from Lucy Corin’s Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, wherein the protagonist notes “I worry every time I find myself imagining someone as innocent, or as ever having been innocent. No one mentions innocence unless they mean to point out how something isn’t anymore. To point to something and call it innocent is to suggest that it won’t be for long…No one says innocent unless they mean doomed.” This description is apt for Bernheimer’s work, as the innocence in her stories is often overturned. Preconceptions of naïveté quickly unravel to showcase complexity. The character from “The Librarian’s Tale” is directly linked to a story called “Professor Helen C. Anderson.” In this tale, sex and gender roles are deconstructed in a series of pink images and singsong passages reminiscent of Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market.” Layers of meaning emerge amid simpler ideas. Throughout the collection, Bernheimer seamlessly moves from to teen angst, and eventually adulthood.
Take for example “Babes in the Woods.” This story is the most direct ‘reboot’ in Bernheimer’s collection—whereas other stories are new fairy tales, “Babes in the Woods” is an updated version of the Hansel and Gretel story. In this retelling, the stepmother starts out as an evil figure, and the children (both girls in this version) are portrayed with that aforementioned doomed innocence, waiting for childhood to shatter at the hands of evil. As the story progresses, the stepmother hesitates and shows some internal guilt (despite this, she still abandons the children in the woods), and the children are shown to be wiser and more manipulative than first-glances suggest.
The reader’s narrow perspective is further shattered when the youngest witch (yes, there are two captors in Bernheimer’s version) becomes friends with one of the captive girls. In the end, the children return to society as teenagers, welcomed by the community, and appeased by their guilty stepmother. Their suffering seems to guarantee a bright future—their lost innocence is like some price of admission to luxury. The surviving witch also emerges from the forest, and the townspeople embrace her as “quite special…as she should have been.” The girls seem more pragmatic as they chain-smoke at school as they take remedial classes (naturally, they have schooling to catch up on after years in the woods). They don’t have time for ogres or witches anymore. They appear logical, cold, calculating—yet still happy—young adults. They’ve been through the ordeal, and they have an ending of sorts, whether it’s a happy ending is debatable. The girls give up some semblance of adventure for grownup stability. Still, they are the venerated heroes of this tale.
“Babes in the Woods” closes with a portrait of the stepmother’s guilt and how she tries to rectify her crimes, also in a calculated way. She reads a book every morning and night, noting “It had no fairy stories inside it, but it did offer a path, and she never strayed from it.” The stepmother “lives for her daughters”—despite an occasional urge to commit suicide. Tension underlies these final scenes, but Bernheimer manages to wrap things up with a sense of wholeness, completion, and even beauty in some liminal state between fairy tale and calculated realism.
Throughout How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, Bernheimer inserts layers or moral relativism into a genre that modern audiences associate with clear-cut Disney narratives of good and evil. It’s no coincidence that her book starts with “The Old Dinosaur,” which could be construed as a meditation on time passing, eras ending, and new ideas emerging. In some ways, this is a collection about time, about growth. This book is a series of coming-of-age stories, but the stories aren’t always sure if they want to grow up. The physical book even looks somewhat like a kid’s book, featuring just one block paragraph per page, punctuated by Catherine Eyde’s occasional illustrations. Bottom line, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and reconnect with your inner child, your inner adult will still have plenty to high-brow complexity chew on in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales.