Book: How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, and Other Stories, by Kate Bernheimer; Illus. Catherine Eyde
Published: August 2014 by Coffee House Press, Minneapolis.
Recommended if you like: offbeat, unusually structured stories; re-imagined fairy tales with a somewhat dark (but also whimsical) tone; the color pink.
First Lines: “Girl from another planet, I’m yours. Your planet is small and difficult, but what planet isn’t?”
Rating: 4/5 sea urchins an old lady with pink hair gave your youngest daughter, for good luck.
ARC provided by Coffee House Press.
I can’t believe Kate Bernheimer wasn’t on my radar before now. She did a similar collection of tales in 2010, called Horse, Flower, Bird, and has edited the anthologies xo Orpheus and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (re: the former, Amazon says:
Icarus flies once more. Aztec jaguar gods again stalk the earth. An American soldier designs a new kind of Trojan horse—his cremains in a bullet. Here, in beguiling guise, are your favorite mythological figures alongside characters from Indian, Punjabi, Inuit, and other traditions.
Uh, yes! please!). Oh, and she also started and edits Fairy Tale Review.
Each story in this new collection is an odd blend of gloomy and whimsical. There’s the old dinosaur who wears giant panda-and-rainbow pajamas to bed – except when he’s not in the mood, like tonight, because he’s thinking about all of his dead friends and family. There’s the librarian who literally lives in her library – in a secret room behind the circulation desk – waiting day after day for anyone to come inside (she’s even set out a flashing sign, hoping someone at least “might mistake it for a new bar”). There’s the boy hiding alone in the woods, inside a little chicken-footed cardboard house, too afraid to leave (there’s a child-stealing witch, you see), but wishing he at least had someone to talk to…
How does that Beatles song go?
Well, maybe not all the people are lonely. There are the Earth girl and the “Girl from another planet” in one of the prose-poem-like interludes that Bernheimer includes before certain stories. And there are best friends S– and K–, in “Oh Jolly Playmate!”, whose childlike friendship made me smile.
The two girls had names for everything. Out by the Fake Creek and the Good Stream they would clasp hands and sing children’s songs, though they were fourteen. *
S– and K– are obsessed with the color pink — actually, the whole book has a kind of pink theme. Pink toy horses, pink-streaked hair, pink wine, “rose-colored” cigars…
My favorite story was “The Girl With the Talking Shadow,” a twist on Peter Pan, about a girl with a love-hate relationship with her shadow. It’s kind of a psychological fairy tale; there were times I wondered whether the shadow really was separate from Cathy herself, or whether she was part of Cathy’s imagination. But then, why do other kids act so strangely around her, looking scared when she smiles at them, hating her the moment they meet her?
Other things I loved: There were some really lovely passages, like this one from “Tale of Disappearance” —
…did I mention that it’s lonely in here? Did I tell you this house is too heavy for words? **
Or this one, from “The Girl With the Talking Shadow” —
And her gray aspect slid toward me from the ceiling at night–a mirror of me made of shadows–even when my eyes were closed I could see her. She had a vague edge, a definite darkness. †
I also liked finding connections between the stories, the way I did in Marshland, by Gareth Rees. Besides the pink theme, there was a recurring rainbow set of fairy tale books (an Andrew Lang reference, perhaps?) and packets of pastel-colored cigarettes.
Things I’m more ambivalent about: The overall bleak mood started to get to me after a while, as did the seemingly negative portrayal of
fairy tales. The characters who aren’t “weaned,” as the title story puts it, from their love of stories — characters who in some way resist growing up — spend their lives lonely, or end up chain-smokers, or develop mental issues. Even as children they’re endangered by this love, like the sisters in “Babes in the Woods,” who are more easily lured into the forest through promises of adventure:
“We’re out here looking for fairy-tale monsters,” the mother said to the girls as they walked on the pine needles… ‡
But if Bernheimer means to associate fairy tales with childhood — and portray both as dangerous if you cling to them — why would the protagonist in one of the stories find the rainbow books in her library’s Adult section? Why would Bernheimer say, in an interview, that she thinks of her story collections (she was referring specifically to Horse, Flower, Bird) “as children’s books for adults”? She herself loves fairy tales, and the idea of getting so wrapped up in a book that you seem to live in its world —
Reading is bliss; it is disappearing, losing attachment to ego and self, to their afflictions.
Maybe I’m misinterpreting, and it’s not the fairy tales that lead her characters into trouble. Maybe the stories are what keep them from completely falling apart, by offering a temporary escape from reality.
Another thing that bothered me at first was the structure. The text is broken up so it fills no more than 1/3 of most pages — sometimes as little as a sentence. At first this was distracting, and I couldn’t help cringing at all the white space that to me seemed like wasted paper.
On the other hand, that staccato format does help emphasize/add tension to certain moments, and it gives each story a greater sense of immediacy. And here’s how Bernheimer explains her similar formatting choices in Horse, Flower, Bird:
I designed these stories to let the air into them, to make the whole experience less claustrophobic. As a writer a lot of your time is spent alone in a room (ceiling, walls, door). The white space in these stories is the airy world, coming in there.
That’s…a really neat concept, actually. Of course, the part of me that’s still uncomfortable with the idea of so much paper being not-fully-used appreciates that Horse, Flower, Bird is available in e-book as well as print form, both at CoffeeHousePress.org and on Amazon. Hopefully, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl will follow suit.
* Pg. 56
** Pg. 33
† Pg. 125
‡ Pg. 100
Great way to lure people in by telling them they would like the book if they liked the color pink! You had me curious… I’m also very intrigued regarding the story about the librarian who lives in her library! Great post! Thanks for sharing!
Admit it — you’d love to live in the library, in a secret compartment that opens up when you take a copy of Little Women off the shelf 😉
I’m glad you mentioned that the themes could be overly dark and depressing. I got that sense from some of the descriptions you gave. It was both an interesting thing to think about, given that some fairy tales really do end poorly for some characters but also that the fairy tale aspect could have been the positive part of what otherwise was a dark and depressing life.
That’s a very good point re: how the fairy tales themselves aren’t all ideal worlds, and reading them isn’t always such an escape from real life. Just like life, there’s a balance of grimness and whimsy in the fairy tale world.