Jan brings up that Snow White is one of the most passive of heroines. What does she do? She begs the huntsman to spare her, she cries and she runs. She enters the dwarfs’ house and steals a meal. When she wakes up she tells her tale to the dwarfs and agrees to cook and clean. She allows the witch to enter the cottage three times. When she finally awakens from her third (near-) death experience, she hears the tale and the prince’s profession of love, agrees to marry him, and dines with him. That’s pretty much it. She’s a little more of a character than Sleeping Beauty, but not by much.

Snow White by Jisuk Cho

The Queen/mother, in contrast, is all action. She seeks out competition and destroys it, over and over again. Even in the face of certain doom she chooses to go to her daughter’s wedding. Even her death is active. Yes, she’s tortured, but she dances to death in those red-hot boots.  My picture of her is that the boots are applied and she’s expected to scream and faint, but defiantly dances . . . OK, it’s not in the story that way, but I think it’s a better story that way.

There’s almost a yin and yang quality to the pair of them: the queen active, passionate, jealous and Snow White passive and . . . what? There isn’t a lot . . . She seems to reflect the latency industriousness of the dwarfs when they’re around, and when they’re not you can almost see her by the reflected light of her mother’s sexuality, trying on brightly colored silk laces for her bodice, looking at new combs for her hair. Even the love she feels for the prince almost seems a reflection of his for her. “I saw you laying there under glass and I fell in love with you (anyway, with what you look like and what I imagine you to be). I love you. Be my wife.” And you see her saying, “Um . . . OK.”

There’s a place-holding quality to the fairy tale hero: she’s never a full or rounded person as the story is told. The narrative of the story tells us that she is beautiful, and her actions say that she is not particularly courageous as she cries and begs the huntsman, not particularly honest as she’s taking the dwarfs’ dinner, not particularly smart letting the queen in three times . . . but sweet enough that the huntsman and the dwarfs are not put off by her. It all comes down to beauty—pleasant passivity as well, but mainly beauty.

No acquisitions editor today would ever buy this story. Readers, each of them would cheerfully and earnestly tell you, would never identify with such a passive main character; her actions and desires must drive the story. Snow White should trick the huntsman into freeing her and lead the dwarfs in a guerrilla war against the palace. As for falling in love with a creep who saw you sleeping and tried to buy you from some dwarfs . . .

And yet, since the fairy tale was written down 199 years ago by the Grimms it’s spawned more than a dozen movies as well as plays, an opera, and countless literary adaptations. Why does it survive?

Partly, perhaps, is that this is a told story.  You learn this story from someone you love so it becomes the shared experience and the shared affect. In the telling of the story by your mother, you learn that she, too, was a little girl just like you and that she grew up successfully.

Jan also points out that little girls love Snow White, the character: they take her as an ideal because everyone loves her. They imagine themselves as someone who is loved by all because their own wonderful qualities are visible to all. And most people do love young children on sight as children. Snow White is taken as a sexual competitor by her mother, and loved at first sight as an adult by the king’s son. She looks at the laces, the combs, the apple offered by her disguised mother and seems to want that same unconditional adult sexualized love as unconditionally as its childhood equivalent. This isn’t that unreasonable on the face of it. A child, girl or boy, does become a different person going through puberty, but this is hard for the person going through puberty to realize, at least to realize day in and day out, and often people around them react to them as their adult persona while internally they still feel like a child.

One of the lessons of Snow White is that we need time to make transitions, that it takes dying and being reborn to become an adult. (Life might be easier if we all had to sleep through middle school). Maybe Snow White, taking the apple and the other wares of the witch, was actively seeking a way to become an adult, to go through that transition, to die (temporarily).

I guess the answer to why Snow White can be such a wimp and get away with it is that the important thing about Snow White is not what she does but how the other characters in the story react to her, and the reason that is so is that the story is experienced by the daughter in her mother’s lap as events that happen to her and are shared by her mother. She’s not active, nor is Snow White.

Ideas, anyone?


We have seen that Snow White, as SurLaLune Fairy Tales puts it succinctly “. . . must die to the pre-pubescent world of the dwarfs in order to be eventually reborn into the adult world as a sexually active women.” SurLaLune, too, points out that the glass coffin allows her to continue to be an object of desire, and that it is a man who must (traditionally) awaken the sexuality of a woman. In the earliest versions and in some other versions of the tale it was not the King’s son who wakes Snow White, but a surrogate for him, a servant. We have asked whether this is to distance the King’s son and Snow White’s adult desires from her inappropriately sexualized prepubescent fantasies.

used with permission

Snow White's Stepmother copyright 2010-2011 by PaintingSaint

Snow White is awake. She has dined with the King’s son. He’s told her the story of her death, professed his love and asked for her hand in marriage. They arrange a wedding, and Snow White’s mother, the Queen, is asked.

The Queen checks with the magic mirror

You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But the young queen is a thousand times fairer than you.

Snow White is now “the young queen.” The wicked mother was wretched and frightened, and did not want to attend the wedding, but could not stay away. When she arrived she was paralyzed by fear and stood still while iron boots were heated in the fire, and she was forced to put her feet in the red-hot boots and dance until she died.

When I talked about Cinderella I guess I didn’t get into the whole issue of shoes, but it is a big deal in fairy tales. Think about the glass slippers in Cinderella and the role they play–the wicked step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the delicate slippers. In The Red Shoes and in Snow White, the wicked mother-figure is danced to death in red-hot Iron shoes, and we’ve only scratched the surface. I won’t go too much deeper, except to point out that the essential quality of a shoe is that you put something into it. It is a vessel, a container for a body part . . . in other words, it is symbolic for woman’s sexuality.

In the context of Cinderella and of Snow White, the shoe is poetic justice: it is the destructive, jealous sexuality of the wicked queen-mother in Snow White and of the wicked step-sisters and step-mother in Cinderella which visits such harm on our young protagonists, and it is fitting that the pain inflicted on those wicked, jealous women comes from an object symbolic of the source of their jealousy. As Bettelheim says in talking about this fairy tale, “Untrammeled sexual jealousy, which tries to ruin others, destroys itself–as symbolized not only by the fiery red shoes but by death from dancing in them. Symbolically, the story tells that uncontrolled passion must be restrained or it will become one’s undoing. Only the death of the jealous queen . . . can make for a happy world.”

from domesticgoddess at womenwriters.net

OK, so let’s revisit the mother and daughter on the bed, a little drowsy, mother reading or telling her daughter the tale. This is where Bettelheim falls short. For him, the message is in the words of the fairy tale. There is a lot of meaning in those words for both mother and daughter, certainly. The daughter hearing only the words will hear a story that begins with a dire warning: don’t compete with your mother for daddy’s love or she’ll eat your lungs and liver cooked with salt. But the story goes on to show that after adversity and after a transition that can be like death, you will eventually find your own adult relationship, one that mother can’t be a part of, and that the wicked queen will be punished in a dreadfully appropriate fashion.

Now imagine yourself as the mother reading this story to your child–who do you identify with in the story? Do you actually identify with the wicked Queen??? NO. Your feelings are all with Snow White. You are the one who runs through the forest after the huntsman spares your life. You’re frustrated that Snow White lets the witch in, that she lets the witch comb her hair and lace her bodice, not elated.

And that’s the point. There really are two daughters there on the bed, sharing the adventure. Both are Snow White. The story really is reassuring for both mother and daughter; all mothers are also daughters. And as mother and daughter sit together as girls listening to this story, mother is also saying she gives permission to her daughter to grow up. The words are there and the meanings that we have seen are really there, but so is the sharing. The closeness and collaboration between story-teller and audience, mother’s arms and the affect in her face and her voice are at least as important as the words themselves.

Edwin Harris-Portrait of a Mother and Daughter Reading a Book-1903


OK, Snow White . . . Trust me as I digress a bit. I’ll get back to Snow White.

One of the most profound differences between Newtonian physics and modern physics–Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and such–is the recognition that the observer makes a difference. In General Relativity, the accelerated observer carries with him a metaphoric clock and measuring stick, and Ernst Schroedinger’s cat has the observer opening it’s case to thank (or to blame) for the collapse of its wave function into a single state.

The observer is the mother reading the fairy tale to the child. So let’s continue our digression and talk about how fairy tales come to exist.

image origin unknown

Snow White in the coffin

A fairy tale (most of the time) starts as a made-up story that a mother or nurse-maid tells to her child; that is, a story that comes from the needs and perceptions, conscious and unconscious, of the the parent. The parent/story-teller reaches out with the story to the listening child. This reaching out is a gift, really. It’s an attempt to show something–often something unconscious on the part of the story-teller–to the listening child. And, of course, the stories that survive are the stories that can involve both generations of story tellers and generations of children.

With that in mind, let’s wake Snow White. We’ll dance the wicked mother to death in her hot iron boots and wrap up next time.

Snow White’s in the dwarfs’ cottage in her crystal casket, surrounded by candles, and she sleeps. Here we recall that she was seven when she left the castle and not much time has passed: she’s a prepubescent child, a latency-aged child in the dwarfs’ cottage, and it was her interest in the Queen’s wares that led to her death. What was the Queen selling? Puberty. . .  Corset-laces, combs and sexuality.

Snow White, or at any rate, Snow White’s interest in adult sexuality, is now dead (temporarily) and in a glass or crystal coffin. Other associations here: a caterpillar in a cocoon, eventually emerging as a butterfly, or the coffin as a womb and Snow White reborn from girl to adult woman. And the quality of the coffin is that Snow White is visible as she sleeps and grows . . .  and matures.

A king’s son travels through the forest and comes to the cottage. He sees the sleeping (beauty) Snow White and falls in love. The idea of falling in love with someone at first sight with no clue as to sense of humor, character or intellect is one that shouldn’t go unexamined, but I’m going to leave it be for now to get on with issues more specific to Snow White.

public domain

Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

The prince tries to bargain with the dwarfs for Snow White, but they turn him down flat. It isn’t until he professes his love for her and talks about his need and how sad he would be without her that the dwarfs decide to let her go. This, on the surface at least, is creepy and smacks a little of necrophilia . . . but remember that this is a magical death in which Snow White doesn’t breathe but doesn’t decay. She stays life-like with color in her cheeks and if the prince is now attracted to her she must also have grown, gone through puberty and matured. In fact, there is an Italian Snow White tale of Basile’s called The Young Slave which states this, and says that the seven caskets (in that story) grew with her.

If you look at the dwarfs, as we did earlier, as a representation of Snow White’s development . . . the school aged, prepubescent child who is industrious, reliable and decidedly asexual, the dwarfs’ dealings with the prince make a little more sense; to leave that protected state and give yourself over to someone as a mature adult, you wish for a relationship that involves love. It isn’t until the prince offers this that Snow White can leave the cottage.

Theodore Hoseman 1852--from Wikipedia

What about waking up? Once the casket with Snow White has left the dwarf’s cottage it is either a negligent or a hostile servant who dislodges the apple from her throat and allows her to wake. It isn’t the prince. In other versions of the Snow White story an enchanted ring is slipped from her finger by a would-be thief, a gown is damaged by a clumsy servant and when it’s taken off to be replaced Snow White awakens. It isn’t the girl’s would-be lover (as it is in many Sleeping Beauty tales). Why the distinction?

Bruno Bettelheim, whose discussion of Snow White in The Uses of Enchantment is highly recommended, in fact gives the prince the credit for carrying the coffin and dislodging the apple Though he doesn’t address why the prince-future husband isn’t the person who dislodges the apple, I think his comment points us in the right direction. Bettelheim says “Snow White’s spitting out of the suffocating apple–the bad object she had incorporated–marks her final freedom from primitive orality . . .” In other words, her mother had tried to sexualize her while she was still a latency-aged child (think of a 9 or 10 or so year-old trying to imitate the clothing and attitude of any of a multitude of  23 year old pop stars). Giving up that inappropriately sexualized childhood is certainly a step Snow White would have had to take to become an adult and embrace the prince . . . but could the prince really have helped her do that?

Snow White awakens, and what do they do? “They sat down together at the table and ate with joy.” Snow White, now a free, awake and adult woman sits and eats as an equal with her beloved. She incorporates the joy.

Next time, the wedding, the death of the Queen and some effort to integrate this into our picture of a mother retelling the story to her daughter.


There’s so much to talk about, and so much that a daughter hears when her mother reads this story. Jan’s comment on Snow White, when I told her that’s what I was looking at today, was, “It’s so hard for a mother to find a balance where she’s not trying to prevent her daughter from ever having sex, and not pushing her daughter into sexuality prematurely.Mostly, we do OK at it. You do get into trouble if you start viewing your daughter as competition, though.”

What does your daughter hear?

There are so many themes that pop up here and there in this story that you’ve heard before in other stories that it’s like listening to an old jazz group just jamming. The spindle and the sleep and the prince from Sleeping Beauty and the Goldilocks search through absent peoples’ food and beds for one that’s “just right.” I’m not going to get involved in the symbology of the colors of white, red and black or the numerology of 3’s and 7’s, though there is a rich vein of discussion there, but I’m more interested in the developmental content, and why it’s loved so much.

Disney's Snow White, with apple. copyright studio and/or distributor

Let’s start at the surface. The surface story, like Rapunzel and others, is that of a child becoming a woman and marrying. In Rapunzel, the mother-figure couldn’t bear to lose her daughter and kept her prisoner, but Snow White faces a different obstacle.

The daughter listening to her mother hears of a mother who is inspired by the sight of her own blood on the snow to wish for a beautiful child . . . her own creation involved pain to her mother, and bleeding. But still all was well until she became more beautiful than her mother. She must have been loved, cared for, but we never see this. It isn’t part of the story. All the listener hears is that her beauty was threatening to the mother, that there is some sort of competition of beauty going on, and winning it is life-threatening. The Queen/mother here seems brittle and dangerous.

Where’s dad?

I think that’s part of the competition and part of the Queen’s rage. I’m with Bruno Bettleheim–I think we see dad’s gaze (in this part of the story, at least) through the magic mirror, and that the Queen/mother sees that her daughter is winning the competition for her father’s love. And I don’t think this is necessarily love in the mature sexual sense, though that is part of it. The daughter listening to the story might hear it in a more general way, that the competition for dad’s love is the danger.

The Queen summons the huntsman . . . and this is another place that we see father, but as an ineffectual and cowed figure who does protect the girl from her mother’s wrath but can only do so surreptitiously; he won’t confront her. He kills a small boar and the Queen eats what she thinks are the lungs and liver (the life’s breath and the seat of the soul) with salt (this, too, is essential for life, but it’s also an essential part of tears). This is primitive and purely an acting out of emotion, one which the listening daughter will recognize as one of her own fears: her angry mother could eat her up. And the eating, too, means taking an essential part of the daughter into the mother, and while that’s undeniably scary and hostile, it can also be an expression of love . . .  “I love you so much I could just eat you up.”

She runs away through a scary woods to a new life, a cottage with seven neatly laid-out places at the little table . . . a place that cannot be scary because of the neatness and the scale. All is small, all is orderly. The fact that there is food here, and a bed that is “just right” is reassuring to our little listener, too.

There’s a feeling that the multiple little guys have to represent little siblings to the listening child, but I’m not sure that that’s true. These are small, harmless creatures, true, but what do the dwarfs do in the story? They work, they lay out dinner, they warn Snow White about the Queen and they set rules . . . she can stay if she’s responsible and cleans, cooks and sews . . . she can’t let anyone into the cottage, it wouldn’t be safe. When the Queen comes by and kills her (the first two times) they revive her. These are the jobs of a nurturing parent, of the father (now less cowed, but still not effective enough in protecting her from her mother). I think the dwarfs “feel like” the girl’s father.

In another way, they might be a reflection of a 7 year-old’s inner life; think about the school child who’s industrious, independent (relatively), and in general trying to be a little adult. That’s the latency-aged child. Snow White has gone from the dependent pre-schooler to latency in her journey to becoming an adult.

Even though Snow White is far away (OK, one day’s run but this is a story-book day’s run), the Queen still feels threatened by her very existence.  She approaches the cottage in disguise to kill Snow White, and Snow White, knowing she is in danger, still can’t resist the wares she’s selling. What is the Queen selling? She’s selling colorful silk ties for Snow White’s bodice and combs for her hair . . . she’s selling adult femininity. Again, the message to the listening child seems to be there: don’t compete with mommy, dearest. And yet, and yet . . . mom is reading or telling the story.

from http://geektyrant.com/news/2010/6/4/brett-ratner-producing-live-action-snow-white-film.html

Snow White and the dwarfs--unattributed art

What about the apple? I’m not certain how a child would hear the apple, but it is round and full, red and sensual. The Queen poisoned only half the apple and shares it with Snow White. According to the narrative the Queen/mother eats from the white half of the apple and Snow White eats from the red. Perhaps the mother, telling the story hears that the Queen has shared Eve’s apple, sexual knowledge, with her daughter and the daughter is overcome, and falls to the floor, dead.

Not dead, for she remains fresh and looks alive, if not breathing. Snow White is placed in a crystal or glass coffin, surrounded by candles. She sleeps, grows, matures, for when she ate the apple she was ostensibly seven years old, and when she wakes she is mature and ready for marriage and sexuality.

In part 3 we’ll talk about waking up, the prince, the wedding and the death of the Queen . . . and try to put together what the listening daughter takes home.


from CBS news

Marge Champion was the model for Disneys Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as with most fairy tales descending from an oral tradition, exists in a number of differing forms. I’m going to use the Brothers Grimm 1812 version as the earliest written form of the work that we recognize. The most often seen form today is Grimm’s 1819 version. SurLaLune Fairy Tales elegantly annotates the 1819 version of the work, and D. L. Ashliman presents his wonderful translation of the 1812 version alongside some of the other tales that involve a jealous mother figure trying to kill her more beautiful child (Aarne Thompson 709), including Basile’s, The Young Slave. Bruno Bettleheim’s take on Snow White in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, just humbles me. It’s well worth reading.

As always, I’ll begin with a synopsis and move on to the discussion. Do read a complete version of the fairy tale, either at one of the links above or from your own well-thumbed copy of Grimm’s (or Andrew Lang’s collection, though I forget what color fairy tale book Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shows up in).

Once upon a time in mid winter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a beautiful queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed, she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful, that she thought, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as this frame. Soon afterward she had a little daughter that was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. (Ashliman)

The queen was vain, though. She sat in front of her magic mirror and each morning asked to be reassured that she was the most beautiful woman in the land. All of us know the refrain, “Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .”

All went well until Snow-White turned seven years old (yes, 7!!), and the mirror answered that that Little Snow-White was the fairer of the two. The Queen’s heart turned. She became jealous and hated Snow White from that moment on. The Queen summoned her huntsman and told him to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her, and to bring back the little girl’s lungs and her liver, that she might have them cooked with salt and eat them.

In the woods, Snow White begins to cry when the huntsman pulls out his knife to stab her, and he takes pity on her “because of her great beauty.” Besides, the animals will get her . . . Snow White runs far into the scary woods while the woodsman kills a young boar, which the Queen has cooked (with salt) and eats as promised.

(I pull back here and imagine a mother holding her daughter, sitting on the side of the daughter’s bed and telling the story of Snow White . . .)

image from coloringweb.com

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White runs until dark, when she comes to a small cottage, neat and clean with 7 neatly laid out place settings and 7 beds, largest to smallest. She eats a small amount from each of the plates and tries each of the beds before the smallest is “just right.” She falls asleep and the dwarfs return from their day’s labor in the mine. Like the bears in Goldilocks, they each note that someone has been eating from their plates and trying their beds before the smallest finds the girl. They are struck by her beauty, and allow her to stay if she will cook and clean diligently, and warn her not to let anyone into the cottage, because they understand that she’ll be in great danger from the Queen.

The next day the Queen indeed checked her mirror and found that Snow White lived, and was still the fairest of all. The Queen tried three times to kill Snow White, each time in a different disguise. Each time the Queen approached the cottage with a different temptation, and each time, despite the dwarfs’ warnings and her own experiences, Snow White admitted her.

Snow White in the woods, by Franz Juttner (from childillustration.blogspot.com)

First, the Queen sold Snow White lace with which to tie her bodice (implying that Snow White now had a bust, and that perhaps “the next day” was longer than most and that Snow White was no longer 7 years old). The Queen laced the bodice and pulled it so tightly that Snow White could not breathe and fell to the ground, dead. The dwarfs returned at the end of the day and cut the ties. Snow White returned to life. Second, the Queen sold Snow White poisoned comb, and when she combed Snow White’s hair the girl fell dead. Finally, the Queen poisoned an apple and offered it to the girl (this she didn’t sell). Snow White was finally distrustful. The Queen cut the apple in half and ate from the white, unpoisoned, side. Snow White ate from the red side and died. The dwarfs could not resuscitate her, and mourned her. But since she didn’t decay or change her appearance “and still had beautiful red cheeks,” they did not bury her, but placed her in a glass coffin.

One day (here there is time for her to mature) a king’s son comes to the cottage. He falls in love with the girl in the coffin and asks if he can purchase her. The dwarfs refuse, and he begs them to allow him take her with, because he’s fallen in love with her. They relent and allow this.

In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale, Snow White is brought back to life when a servant, angry at having to carry the coffin all the time, opens it, sits her up and hits her on the back. Later versions have a servant stumble carrying the coffin from the dwarfs’ cottage to the castle. Either way, the apple is dislodged and Snow White and the prince are married. Snow White’s mother comes to the wedding and is placed into red-hot iron shoes and made to dance until she dies.

Again, I pull back and think of a mother reading this to her daughter. Whuwh!

There is a lot going on here, both on the surface and beneath it. Next post will begin to look at the story from the standpoint of what the child is hearing as mother tells the story. I’d love to hear from anyone out there about their Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs memories.


First, a shameless plug.

I am producing the play Ashes to Ashes, by Harold Pinter, for the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. The play, along with a discussion led by Jacob Lindy, a psychoanalyst on the CPI faculty who’s written extensively on PTSD, and with Gila Naveh, Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati and a scholar of the Holocaust, will be presented Saturday and Sunday April 30 and May 1 at the Chapel of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. For tickets, go to the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute web site and click on the Ashes to Ashes link.

Second, Jan and I will be teaching Fairy Tale Magic and Why Kids Love It at the Chautauqua Summer Institute July 25-29, part of their special studies program.

Third, with a remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie  in the works, I think it’s time for me to look at that oldie but goodie. That will be the next fairy tale.


The Book Thief

02Apr11

When the narrator of the novel is Death, it’s hard to imagine that all will end well.

1st edition cover from Wikipedia

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is narrated by Death and takes place in Germany between 1939 and 1945. True, Death plays a major role in the story and the times, but the protagonist is Liesel Meminger, who becomes the book thief, and eventually writes her own story. The Book Thief won the 2007 Printz Award, among others.

I should tell you that, like The Life of Pi (and here), this is really a literary novel rather than a children’s or YA book. Like The Life of Pi, a thoughtful young adult would read it and might fall in love with it. But this is a book that is more concerned with its characters and their inner lives than with philosophy and layered meaning, and thus is a better book than The Life of Pi (to me)–not that there are not such layers, just that the characters are more fully realized, as opposed to being  ciphers whose actions are determined by the needs of the allegory. Liesel Meminger is neither saint nor sinner, but an 11-ish girl as the story begins.

Briefly, Liesel’s brother dies on the train to Molching, a suburb of Munich, as their mother takes him and Liesel to meet their foster family. Liesel’s father was a communist and her mother is in trouble with the Nazi party. Her brother is buried, and Liesel picks up a book that was left in the snow in the graveyard, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. She and her mother continue to Molching, where she is left with her foster family, the Hubermans. Hans Huberman, her foster father with silver eyes, is a house painter. He sits with her during her nightmares, over and over again. He listens, he tells stories and eventually teaches her to read from The Grave Digger’s Handbook, writing the difficult words in paint on the basement wall. Liesel’s foster mother, Rosa, is short and square like a bureau, wrinkled, and has “elastic hair.” She swears and berates all those she loves, and loves them fiercely.

Episodes here ring true. Liesel can’t read as well as other kids because she hasn’t been in school. She wants to read with other kids during the test so she won’t allow the teacher to leave her out, and humiliates herself when she can’t read the passage the teacher gives her. Later, the other kids tease her on the playground and she beats up one of her tormentors. Rudy Steiner, one of the children in the class, falls for her and in the fashion of fifth grade crushes everywhere, asks her for a kiss when he’s done something nice for her. Together they play soccer, they steal apples and steal books and watch the world change. They find the dying pilot of an enemy plane and Rudy leaves a teddy bear on his chest before the crowd gathers. Liesel and Rudy are best friends, but she only grants his kiss near the end of the book when she finds his broken body on the ground after Himmel Street is bombed and Death is holding Rudy’s soul.

Max Vandenburg, the Jewish boxer. Max’s father, in the random fashion fate reserves for war, saved Hans Huberman’s life during World War I, and he was the man who taught Hans to play the accordion. Hans tried to return the accordion to Max’s mother after the war and promised to do anything he could to help. He left her with his name and address. Years later, after Hitler’s rise to power, that scrap of paper with Hans’s address became Max Vandenburg’s only hope of survival in the hostile country which had once been his home. He made his way there, lived in their basement and took up where Hans had left off teaching Liesel the power of words, the power of story to shape a life, to weave hope, to keep a person alive. Near the end of the story Liesel tells Rudy about Max.

Years ago, when they’d raced on a muddy field, Rudy was a hastily assembled set of bones with a jagged, rocky smile. In the trees this afternoon, he was a giver of bread and teddy bears. He was a triple Hitler Youth athletics champion. He was her best friend. And he was a month from his death.

“Of course I told him about you,” Liesel said.

She was saying goodbye and she didn’t even know it.

I won’t go further with the synopsis, since I want to stop and talk about some of the things I love about the book and about why the choice of Death as the narrator.

First, Death. Death tells us, by his presence and from the first scenes of the book–the death of Liesel’s brother and his burial and the title of the first book Liesel steals–that Death will be close to Liesel throughout the story. We know that this will be a tale of loss, of grief. That it turns out also to be a story of hope and growth and the triumph of what is good and human is something we have to learn by reading the book.

Ren, in The Good Thief (and here) and Katniss, in the Hunger Games trilogy (and here), both lose as much as Liesel does . . . family and home and loves . . . but the feel of The Book Thief is different. Part of that difference is the choice of Death as narrator: when characters die there is a sense that someone, something cares, that there is an end of a story, and that Death, in fact, knows the story whether it makes sense or not. Whether the death of the individual was in any way coherent or meaningful, Death knows that it happened and in some sense, the universe cares. The deaths here are foreshadowed. Death knows they will happen and tells the story knowing. As they happen, he tells us the color of the sky and the light.

I’ll end with a little of what I love about the book.

This book is, among many other things (e.g. a brilliant anti-war novel, an allegory about the power of story, and an old-fashioned story about the redemptive power of love), the story of a very small community in Germany under the rule of a psychopath. And yet, there is no sense of anachronism in the attitudes of the characters; no one seems to be viewing the present from the vantage point of history.

Good people are good people, and some people believe what they’re told, some don’t. Few characters in this novel are cardboard cutouts. There is always the possibility for redemption here. Some characters are capable of being redeemed, some try but fail. Life here is hard, the choices have terrible and sometimes all-too-immediate consequences. Most struggle to stay alive, but all struggle to stay human.

Highly recommended. Adult and YA.


The next post is likely to be another book review, this one on The Book Thief, then I’ll return to my roots and do another fairy tale. For past fairy tale takes, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Juniper Tree, The Frog King Or Iron Heinrich, etc., check out the Fairy Tale tag in the Play Pen (to the right and scroll down).


First, thank you to Deborah Netanel for suggesting The Book Thief. I just picked it from the BSBSD (yep, bedside book stack of doom) and it’s wonderful. More on it later. But can anyone out there think of books other than The Book Thief and several of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books with Death as a/the narrator or main character?

from Borders.com

Moon Over Manifest is Clare Vanderpool’s first novel, and is the 2011 Newbery winner. 1936, and Abilene Tucker has spent her life riding the rails with her father, Gideon–part con man, part hobo, currently a railroad worker in Iowa. But her father sent her away to live with a man she’s never met, Pastor Shady Howard, in a place she knows only from Gideon’s stories. So Abilene rides the rails alone to Manifest, Kansas, this time as a paying customer. She knows enough to ditch just out of town before the train stops at the station, so she can get a look at the place before it gets a look at her.

The foreshadowing does start out a bit heavy: not only is the town named Manifest, but it’s sign has faded and been shot up so that it’s gone from “A TOWN WITH A RICH PAST AND A BRIGHT FUTURE” to “A TOWN WITH A PAST.” And let us not dwell too long on why Abilene’s father is named Gideon and why the Pastor’s name is Shady. Nor why the ornate metal gateway to Miss Sadie’s Divining Parlor says “Perdition.” Still, much of the foreshadowing ends up a little slantwise, which always beats straightforward in a story.

This is not one story, but a complex weave of intermixed stories that go back and forth between the Depression-era story of Abilene’s search for clues about how her father fit into the town of Manifest and the identity of “The Rattler,” and the 1917 stories of Jinx and Ned, of a murder, and how a mining town almost reclaimed its own destiny. Along the path we learn how an immigrant mother watched over her child as best she could.

Abilene’s search for her father proceeds through Ned’s letters, Hattie Mae’s columns and Miss Sadie’s stories, and brings the poison of the past up like a poultice brings the abscess on Miss Sadie’s leg to the surface to be drained. The past must be remembered if there is to be hope for the future, and Abilene’s search for her father brings back Manifest’s destiny. Ouch.

Sorry. I couldn’t help myself there.

This is a good book, though it may be a bit hard for the 11-13 year old group that it’s aimed at to get into, both because of its complex structure and because the main character seems oddly distant. She does grow through the book, though, and for those who stick with her, there are real rewards. Recommended.


Ship Breaker

27Feb11

Paulo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker won this year’s Printz Award. Bacigalupi won a Hugo Award for his sci-fi novel, The Windup Girl, and has written a couple of novellas and a collection of short stories, but this is his first YA novel.

Nailer is 17, and he’s still alive and working because he’s small–he can fit through the ductwork on the ancient tankers and salvage the copper wiring. But he’s growing, and soon he’ll be to big to work the light salvage crew and he’ll never make it on heavy salvage. This is a dystopian future in which there is little oil and no law. Crew and family are the only safety, the only way to eat. Nailer lives in a shack on the beach with his abusive, drug addicted father and the memories of what life was like before his mother died, before his father lost what was human. Pima, his light crew’s boss, is a friend. Her mother and their shack is a haven, almost a home. This is a world of luck and the Salvage God, where a Lucky Strike can save your life, where you sell organs to live if all else fails, and where death comes quickly.

The story truly begins with a symbolic rebirth: Nailer falls into what should have been his Lucky Strike. He is immersed in a pocket of oil and drowning. He calls to his crew member, Sloth, for help but she betrays him. He lives through wit and courage, expelled like a newborn through a rent in the tanker hull. What oil is left goes to someone else, but he lives, wounded, and is changed. Sloth’s betrayal costs her . . . perhaps she can live as a prostitute or by selling her organs, perhaps not. This is a tale of death and rebirth, in which each decision has a price. Next year, if Pima can’t bulk up enough to get on heavy crew that may be her fate.

When Pima and Nailer find the fresh wreck of one of the incredible clipper ships, the salvage could be their Lucky Strike, or it could mean a swift death at the hands of Nailer’s father. Nailer and Pima find a dead swank, a girl their own age, and begin to remove her jewelry. They can’t get her rings off, but she bleeds when they try to cut them and she opens her eyes.

The smart thing to do would be to cut her throat and sell her organs, and perhaps Nailer would have done that before his plunge into the oil pocket, but he can’t now.

“Don’t cut her,” Nailer said. “We can’t make a Lucky Strike like this . . . It would be like Sloth was with me.”

That pits him against his father and forces him into a dangerous plot involving competing factions for control of one of the huge multinational corporations that rule this post-apocalyptic world.

Like the Mockingjay series, this is an unblinking look at a terrifying and all-too-possible future, and like that series it is seen through the eyes of a compelling protagonist. Where it parts company, though, is that in Bacigalupi’s world there is greater possibility for trust, for redemption and for love.

Highly recommended for older YA.