My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: forty new fairy tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. I loved this collection, even though it took me for everloving ever to read. After patiently listening to me alternately rave about the book and whine about how no matter how many pages I turned, I was always in the middle, a friend asked if it took longer because I had to switch gears between writers: 40 stories = 40 authors. I think that’s part of it and part of it is that there really are a lot of pages, but the main thing was the nature of the reading. Fairy tales are easy and hard - it all sounds familiar in a collective human knowledge way (once upon a time/ over the river and through the woods), but they can support so many layers of meaning or ring bells in deeply interior mental chambers that take a while to chime on the surface. (If ever!) I like the way some stories never fully reveal themselves - I think this partially submerged nature is one of the reasons that fairy tales are so resilient.

[Side note: can we talk about how somewhere along the line (WHERE?) the popular culture definition of “fairy tale” ("oh, it's like a fairy tale") came to mean a royal wedding, or a big wedding, or at least a wedding with white twinkle lights in the trees? Actual fairy tales seem to be less about matrimony and a big dress and more along the lines of transformation (of every kind you can imagine), inscrutable riddles, bad bargains, greed, blood, guts, gold, murder, untrustworthy (often bloodthirsty) parents, talking animals, poison, houses on chicken legs, curses, survival, death, and rampant vegetation. (And so much more, including the occasional wedding and big dress, but still.) WHERE? I don’t think we can lay it all at the feet of Walt Disney.]

This was a solid four star book for me - some stories were outstanding and some I didn’t like as well (not unusual for a collection), but there was only one that I skipped after a page. It was organized by region, which had it’s plusses and minuses: the European stories most familiar to me were in the middle, which meant I read what seemed like 15 swan stories in a row. I don’t know that organizing them any other way would have been better. (Alphabetical by author?) ANYWAY. I really liked it! When I was looking over the table of contents one last time before I had to take it back to the library - there’s a waiting list - I was reminded of how many really great stories there are in this book. You should read it.

Here are a few notes and quotes from various stories -some from the story themselves, some from the author’s afterword. I limited myself to five, chosen haphazardly from the initial twenty or so I wanted to quote. It was hard to pick!

Shelley Jackson - The Swan Brothers (Based on the Six Swans) - present tense second person out of sequence WONDERFUL. The sister who does the spinning required to turn her brothers back into people is referred to as The Performance Artist (she’s spinning in a gallery). The narrative is sliced through with related announcements like the following:


Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out. 

Timothy Schaffert - The Mermaid in the Tree (Based on The Little Mermaid). The world of this story, unlike many fairy tales, is populated with a lot of characters - we’re not in a lonely cottage in the woods, but rather the town of Mudpuddle Beach, which appears to be a seedy sort of seaside town. There’s a mermaid parade, black market demand for mermaid tongues and organs, Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misspent Youth, the convent of the Sisterhood of Poseidon’s Daughters, a flophouse, a casino, an amusement park, the Ink and Stab tattoo parlor, etc. 

This story was definitely one of my favorites, even as I worried that it was mega-lurid and why am I so drawn to these rundown carnival settings anyway, do I have some kind of peep-show problem, etc. But then I read the following in the author’s end-note and quit worrying because I had to order Schaffert's novel from the library immediately: “A mermaid suicide figures in the plot of a fictional children’s book at the heart of my novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. This fictional book, also called The Coffins of Little Hope, tells the tale of two wrongly accused sisters locked up in an all-girl criminal-orphan asylum, where fantastical threat lurks around every sharp corner. (This children’s book series within the novel inspires a slavish fandom and obsession among its readership that begins to reflect the dark and venal impulses of the series’ more despicable characters.)” It goes on, but I’ll stop because at this point I’m counting the hours until I can read it and feel a kinship with the obsessed book within a book readership. I hope this doesn’t reflect any dark and venal impulses on my part, but… fantastical threats are lurking! It’s on its way - I can’t wait. 

Aimee Bender - The Color Master (based on Donkeyskin) Heart eyes for this story!!! It’s in my top 5 for sure: “Our store was expensive, I mean EX-PEN-SIVE, as anything would be if all its requests were clothing in the colors of natural elements. The Duke’s son wanted shoes the color of rock, so he could walk in the rock and not see his feet. He was vain that way, he did not like to see his feet. He wanted to appear, from a distance, as a floating pair of ankles.” A FLOATING PAIR OF ANKLES. One of the things I love about Aimee Bender is that her writing style is so clean and straightforward while her ideas are wild and extraordinary.

Rabih Alameddine - A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper (based on Sleeping Beauty): “A plant of some kind sprouted and wound itself around the fairy godmother’s calf. Plants everywhere, on all sides, shoots, roots, trees, grass, hemlock, all entwined with poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac. All over, sprouting, shooting upward. Thistles, so many thistles, brambles, blackberry, and brier, sweetbrier, greenbrier. Within minutes, a tangled messy mass of impenetrable thorns encircled the tower, a deadly poisonous brier patch, a vast thorny wood.” Transitions, sexual awakening, sickness to health, sleep to waking, the present danger and pleasure of the green and growing world. An interesting twist (explained in the author’s note) is that “the main protagonist is neither the sleeper nor the waker,” which I realize I’ve never read in a Sleeping Beauty story before.

Neil Labute - With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold (Based on Rumplestiltskin): from the afterword “I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rumpelstiltskin story and its title character—he’s a nasty piece of work, but, for some reason, I feel for the little guy. After all, he does exactly what he promises to do and asks for only one thing in return; he keeps his promise when those around him break theirs and is publicly humiliated and sent shrieking off into the night (I suppose the fact that he’s asking for a baby as his prize does make some difference). Still, I love the “person who returns” in literature and “Rumplestiltskin” is a perfect example of revenge as a motif in the fairy tale. It’s also just a lot of fun, the whole damn story—I mean, he spins gold out of straw, for God’s sake!” That last bit is what I love about these stories - you get the revenge tale or a test or a journey, but you also get gold out of straw or shoes the exact color of rocks or an entire sleeping castle.

You guys, there are so many good stories in here! If you need more encouragement than these quotes and all my exclamation points, you could read this collection as preparation for the (at least) two fairy tale TV shows (with Buffy the Vampire Slayer pedigree) coming this fall: Grimm, set in Portland/filmed in Portland, co-executive produced by David Greenwalt; and Once Upon a Time, co-executive produced by the marvelous Jane Espenson.  And aren't there at least two Snow White and the Huntsman movies bubbling up on the horizon? Fairy tales never truly go away, but they do seem to be experiencing a high-profile revival. 
3 comments on "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me"
  1. Off to Goodreads to put this at the top of my list! Awesome!

  2. Whoa! No wonder it took you some while to get through that collection! It sounds both fascinating and challenging. To be savored over a year, perhaps, not necessarily read all in a gulp. (My usual style.) From your words and the little peeks, I definitely want to dip in. Not sure I would be up for many stories all at once of the same theme--much as I admire swans.

  3. Thank you both!

    Reading them all at once was a blessing and a curse (as is the way with fairy tales) - I enjoyed it though, and will read them again at some point. I just need to have my own copy so I can return to stories at will!

    Next time, I'd probably alternate the European Grimm/Perrault stories with ones I'm less familiar with.


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