Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories & Poems
by Theodora Goss
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Snow White Learns Witchraft will be published in one month, February 5, 2019, and is available for pre-order. When I saw the Table of Contents I knew my time would be well spent, even if the only story I had previously read ended up my favorite. The majority of the individual titles (if not the word count) are original to this collection. That includes eighteen of the twenty-one poems, plus two of eight stories. Only one of the poems has a rhyming pattern, all the rest are free verse, and if they had been formatted differently could have been considered flash fiction, micro-short stories. Most are retellings of well known fairy tales; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, etc. Several twist the originals all out of shape, such as Goldilocks marrying a bear, and Red Riding Hood transforming into a wolf. A few may be based on folk tales from Hungary, the author's birthplace, or else derive from fairly tales of which I'm not familiar.
My two favorite poems are of the latter type, and both had been previously published. "Rose Child" is about a woman who discovers a very small girl, no taller than five inches, in her garden. The girl is dressed in skins that may have come from a mouse, and she brandishes a thorn to let the woman know she is not defenseless. The woman brings her food and items she thinks the girl can use, bits of fabric, thread, a small needle. It is possible that contact is what causes the girl to become ill, but the woman cares for her as best she can, and in so doing becomes aware of several other small people who have been observing her. It's a very poignant tale, the conclusion of which I will not spoil. The other poem is "Seven Shoes," about a girl who makes a pact with a witch to get her heart's desire, but first she must wear out seven pairs of shoes. By the time that has happened, years have passed, the girl has forgotten about the witch, but what she has learned along the way accomplishes the task anyway.
The story I had read, "Red as Blood and White as Bone," is a novelette, one I nominated for a Hugo in 2017, although it did not make the final ballot. It is set in a mountainous forest region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire shortly after World War 1, with the story continuing through and after WW2. The narrator is a poor peasant girl, sent to a convent after her mother dies, then later to be a scullery maid in a baron's castle. She has become enamoured of fairy tales, and miraculously begins living one when she rescues a girl she believes to be a lost princess. This was the third time I've read it, and I still love it, but several others are in contention as favorites. The ARC I have doesn't have page numbers on the contents page, but scrolling through my Kindle and counting pages I was able to establish that "The Rose in Twelve Petals" (Sleeping Beauty), "Snow, Blood, Fur" (Red Riding Hood), "Sleeping with Bears" (Goldilocks), and "Conversations with the Sea Witch" are short stories. "The Other Thea" and "A Country Called Winter" would be novelettes, and if "Blanchefleur" is not a novella (17,500 words), it comes very close.
The two other novelettes concern characters that are somewhat autobiographical. Ms. Goss has degrees in literature and teaches in addition to her own writing. The protagonist of "The Other Thea" has taken a gap year before beginning her studies at Harvard. She feels adrift, rudderless, weak in body and spirit. On a visit to her previous school, one for witches, the headmistress asks her, "Did you ever find your shadow?" It seems that when she was six years old, her grandmother had snipped off her shadow, hid it away in a box in the attic, and Thea has had to go through life without it since. Her corporeal body is now fading, and she decides she must go to the Other Country to seek counsel from Mother Night, to find out how to recapture her shadow. "A Country Called Winter" is a variation on the Snow Queen. A girl brought to the United States at a young age, whose father had died before they left the old country, retains a little of the language, and thanks to a nanny, some of the history. She is now a graduate student, content to immerse herself in her studies to forget failed romances, and a strained relationship with her mother. Little does she know momentous changes going on in her home country will soon beckon her to become the new Queen.
"Blanchefleur" is about a boy named Ivan, the miller's son, but whom almost everyone calls Idiot. They are mistaken about his mental abilities. He's simply shy and withdrawn, or at least has been since his mother died. His father sends him off to the Old Witch of the Forest, who in turn apprentices him out to three others, for a year each time. He helps Professor Owl, who is compiling and updating an Encylcopedia of All Things. Then he helps care for seven lizard children while their mother, a famous travel author, goes off on another of her tours. His third apprenticeship is in the mountains of the far north, training with a wolf pack. He learns a great deal about the world while updating the Encylopedia, about commitment to a task in caring for the lizards, and how to cooperate with the other wolves to accomplish a mission. He even gets to fight a dragon. In every way he proves he is far from being an idiot. It's possible this will end up my favorite, but it will take a few more readings of all of the stories to be sure.
There is a reason fairy tales continue to be told, retold, retooled, and reshaped by succeeding generations. They speak to everything that is important about being human, our hopes and dreams, but also our fears and anxieties. Theodora Goss has made them her life's work, not just the creation of new variations, but also the study of the multitude of past creations. To read her stories and poems is to immerse yourself in these universal truths, to become more empathetic and compassionate, to come to the realization that dreams can come true if you believe in yourself, in others, and in our interconnectedness with nature. This book is not to be missed. Even if you think you've outgrown fairy tales, I'm sure Ms. Goss can rekindle the fascination.
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