No contemporary author knows more about the fairy tale than Kate Bernheimer. Her scholarship and fiction both work to promote public understanding of this often-misrepresented genre. Bernheimer is a professor at the University of Arizona, and founder of the Fairy Tale Review. She has edited several anthologies of fiction and criticism in which major contemporary authors contemplate and reimagine classic tales. Bernheimer has done more than anyone to give these timeless stories a voice, and to examine the contemporary way we relate to them.
Needless to say, approaching Bernheimer’s latest collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, out from Coffee House Press, was a bit intimidating. This book contains nine dense, dark, and exquisite new fairy tales. Bernheimer has been compared to Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. And these comparisons are certainly apt. Like the work of Bender and Link, Bernheimer’s collection reminds us that magic and whimsy don’t equal fluff. Anyone who thinks that fairy tales necessitate happy endings hasn’t read very many fairy tales, and certainly isn’t familiar with Kate Bernheimer’s work.
In How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, an old dinosaur who has lost all his loved ones finds himself bereaved, alone in the big city; he flies to a church where everyone is holding up pictures of his dead relatives. A pink-haired woman gives a little girl a sea urchin that brings death when it blooms, rather than the promised good luck. To hide from a witch in the woods, a young boy constructs a camouflage house—where he grows old and lonely. In a tale about girlhood friends obsessed with the color pink, the rhyming songs interspersed throughout the narrative become increasingly dark—as do the story’s events. In another tale, a troubled, ostracized girl has a mean talking shadow. It is only fitting that the collection’s title story is about a girl who only desires dolls that can tell fairy tales; her request: “The ones with the goriest endings. Find the dolls that can tell those, won’t you please?”
Make no mistake: How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales is a serious and studied collection. I hesitate to make any elaborate statements about its use of fairy tale techniques, and the relationship of some of these stories to their source tales, because it’s clear that Kate Bernheimer knows so much more than I do—in fact, probably knows more than anyone does—about fairy tales. In an interview with Time Out New York about this collection, she explained her process:
Each story in the book is based on an old fairy tale—a source tale—that I have read in anywhere from 10 to 100 translations before I begin to write my own story. When I begin to write a story, I focus exclusively on one version of the source tale. For each of these nine stories I relied on a specific set of techniques, and I wrote each story as I always write: With a fairy-tale book open on the desk. I follow the old tale sentence by sentence at first, until I lose my way and find myself “elsewhere.”
Bernheimer describes her work as “same-language translations of old fairy tales into a new form with a new composition.” And this is exactly what the stories in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales feel like. Bernheimer has achieved this through a detailed scholarly analysis of the fairy tale form. But the reader need not be familiar with fairy tale scholarship to understand Bernheimer’s work. We connect to these studied translations on a personal, primal level. Bernheimer has distilled for us the essence of these fairy tales, which is, in the end, a timeless, human thing.
While the collection may be based on age-old works, its stories have a contemporary texture. In “Oh Jolly Playmate!” a blonde girl who lives in a stone house and a brown-haired girl who lives in a wood house are friends. They hang out in the suburbs, watch The Twilight Zone, and eat Red Hots. In “The Old Dinosaur,” the dinosaur lives in an urban apartment and wears panda and rainbow pajamas. The librarian of “The Librarian’s Tale” explains the lack of visitors: “None of the drivers slow down; they seem not to notice the new blinking LIBRARY sign: I had expected that some might mistake it for a new bar.”
Between the longer stories, there are a series of illustrated page-long passages that all include the declaration: “I’m yours.” The first one is written to a “girl from another planet” with “hands of metal flowers.” These short sections, in which the narrator proclaims admiration and devotion to various entities, act as a good contrast to the longer, darker tales. Underneath a picture of a girl holding up two animate heads on sticks, the narrator proclaims: “But we so like to be together: you two gazing off into the distance, me loving you best. We will have each other for always: my legs and your sticks.”
It’s refreshing that, in this collection, the text is allowed to breathe. The book itself is wide; the typeface is large. There is a lot of white space on the bottom of every page. And this is just how it should be. Bernheimer’s stories are dense and deliberate. The reader needs this room to fully digest the prose, to fill in the blank space below the text where, in a traditional children’s book, the illustrations might be. Bernheimer writes: “The white space of my stories is a nonrepresentational space, one meant to allow lucid encounters.”
It’s also interesting that many of the stories are written in the first person, in a lively, familiar tone. Some of the best passages are direct, conversational statements. The man who has grown old, alone, in his camouflage house declares: “Did I tell you this house is too heavy for words?” The girl says of her talking shadow: “The older I grew the harsher she got—I don’t think she liked the way my growing stretched her so thin.”
In “The Librarian’s Tale,” the librarian proclaims:
The thing is, I don’t understand why no one ever comes to the library. Books are no different from goats! They enjoy an afternoon out on the lawn.
That statement is the only text on the page.
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Pub Date: August 5, 2014
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser