By nature, I do not like fairy tales. I don’t care to waste my time on the morals and easy endings that come from far-fetched tales begging me to learn the lessons they so desperately need to teach me. As such, I was immediately wary of Jean Thompson’s “The Witch and Other Tales Re-told,” which is loosely based on a variety of fairy tales as represented by an illustration at Thompson’s childhood dentist’s office. As I began the title story, it was with dread, fearing Thompson would provide me a glib retelling of a story I already hated, but my reservations were assuaged after reading the first line, “My brother and I were given over to the Department of Children and Family Services after our father and his girlfriend left us alone in the car one too many times.” Upon my reading of this straightforward yet jam-packed sentence, I knew Thompson was offering me more than a knock-off fairy tale.
From there Thompson continued to exceed my expectations. “The Witch,” the opening story in the collection, is written in plain language and focuses on real, albeit unlikable, characters. The protagonist, Jo, and her brother Kerry are often left in their father’s car unsupervised for hours on end while their father and his girlfriend, Monica, run off to have fun. One night, the two youngsters wander out of the car, needing the restroom, and fall into the care of child services. From there, the two find themselves living with an old lady, Mrs. Wojo, who is obsessed with Kerry and who hates Jo.
It becomes clear to the reader very early on that “The Witch” is based on “Hansel and Gretel,” and because of this, I knew the children would figure a way out of Mrs. Wojo’s house. Yet what makes this take on the old fairy tale interesting is the honesty of Jo. While recognizing that she is the reason the two have landed in child services, she never stops looking for an escape. When the opportunity arises, Jo knows she must take it and save her brother and herself by locking the old woman in the basement. Thompson’s choice to have a small child abandon an elderly lady behind a locked door fits perfectly. It keeps Thompson’s story fresh and empowers the young protagonist.
Part of the allure to the collection is the element of fear Thompson peppers throughout many of the stories. While the fear the children face at the dreadful Mrs. Wojo’s house is expected, Thompson’s take on “Little Read Riding Hood,” felt like a roller coaster of surprises. While it was obvious Janice, the teenage protagonist, was likely going to find herself in the throes of danger, I was continually kept on my toes by the various avenues from which that potential danger would come. Janice’s desire to have relations with boys, her obsession with a forbidden Puerto Rican, Richie, his gang of goons, and let’s not forget Janice’s cyber-sexing online friend all lead the reader to the obvious conclusion: Janice is destined for trouble. But what comes as the greatest surprise is how quickly Janice abandons the good within her to turn to the dark side.
I especially appreciate the ease with which Thompson handles her characters making bad decisions. Whether they are sleeping around, striking out alone into the “wild,” or turning their backs on what they have been brought up to believe as good or right, Thompson gets right to the heart of us all. We each have a dark side that is eager to get out, in this collection of stories, Thompson not only explores that ache at freedom, but she also exploits this failing of the human condition. Rightfully so, I find Thompson’s collection both relevant to today’s society, which reeks of bad behavior disguised beneath nice words and fake smiles, and a divergence from the lackluster re-tellings with which we are often faced from the likes of Disney movies.
In fact, the only element of Thompson’s collection that gave me any pause after overcoming my reluctance to read fairy tale reinventions is the abrupt ending many of the stories have. In fact, at times, the stories ended so abruptly, it was shocking, and perhaps, unfulfilling. Other times, the stories ended abruptly and far too neatly. Upon my first reading of this collection, I was annoyed, but then, on a long drive home from work, it occurred to me: Thompson is re-telling fairy tales. Of course those stories would have abrupt, and sometimes very neat, endings; it is, by nature, how fairy tales operate. Upon the epiphany, I could do nothing but appreciate Thompson’s decision to stick with these fast endings even if they left me yearning for more.
Overall, I feel like Thompson’s collection is an excellent read for anyone brave enough to confront the human condition head on while delving directly into a semi-farfetched reality that rings a little truer than many of us would find comfortable.
“The Witch and Other Tales Re-told”
by Jean Thompson
Penguin Group/Blue Rider Press