How to Frac­ture a Fairy Tale

  • Review
By – April 29, 2019

Folk­lore is our shared her­itage. The recur­rence of motifs across dif­fer­ent cul­tures — such as the tri­als of a poor girl seek­ing the prince who will trans­form her life — offers proof our com­mon human con­cerns. Jane Yolen has nev­er sub­scribed to the notion that artists should describe only those expe­ri­ences exclu­sive to their own eth­nic group or gen­der, and in How to Frac­ture a Fairy Tale, she con­tin­ues to explore the inter­sec­tion of fan­ta­sy, myth, and psy­chol­o­gy — and in doing so, rewrites and refines” tales that expose the dark and trou­bling sides of human nature.

The book is divid­ed into two main sec­tions: the fairy tales them­selves, and addi­tion­al expla­na­tions for each one’s gen­e­sis, along with relat­ed poems. In her intro­duc­tion, Yolen explains that her process involves both destruc­tion and recon­fig­u­ra­tion as she cre­ates new nar­ra­tives from the pos­si­bil­i­ties sug­gest­ed by old ones.

Yolen has set a few of the tales in set­tings spe­cif­ic to her own Jew­ish back­ground, but inter­weaves ele­ments from oth­er tra­di­tions, as she does through­out the col­lec­tion. In Granny Rum­ple,” Yolen takes a ham­mer to the fright­en­ing but sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry of Rumpel­stilt­skin, best known in the Ger­man iter­a­tion record­ed by the Grimm broth­ers (although it appears in oth­er cul­tures as well). In the tra­di­tion­al tale, a pow­er­ful imp is ulti­mate­ly frus­trat­ed in his attempt to rob the miller’s daugh­ter of her child. Yolen inter­prets this sto­ry through a Jew­ish lens, trans­form­ing the small mon­ster with fan­tas­tic pow­er into a pow­er­less Jew­ish money­len­der who trav­els back and forth between the ghet­to and the world of the gen­tiles. Yolen delib­er­ate­ly eras­es bound­aries between author and sto­ry, con­fess­ing that her fam­i­ly were noto­ri­ous liars,” and that she her­self had been deprived of learn­ing Yid­dish as a child. She punc­tu­ates her nar­ra­tive with iron­ic com­men­tary and con­tex­tu­al­izes the his­tor­i­cal anti­semitism essen­tial to her new myth.

In Slip­ping Side­ways Through Eter­ni­ty,” the author revis­its the time trav­el of her ear­li­er nov­el, The Devil’s Arith­metic, as she con­scious­ly push­es the lim­its of how authors may choose to include Holo­caust his­to­ry with­in works of YA fic­tion. When Shan­na, the fif­teen-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, refers to her vision of Eli­jah as some­where between a con­cen­tra­tion camp vic­tim and a Beat poet,” read­ers may cringe and at the same time admire Yolen for allow­ing her char­ac­ter to be an authen­ti­cal­ly snide teenag­er. Shan­na casu­al­ly refers to the graph­ic nov­el Maus, and to his­to­ri­an Saul Friedländer’s dis­cus­sion of the respon­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in inter­pret­ing the Holo­caust. Yolen has frac­tured the fairy tale with allu­sions to her own role in tak­ing on this weighty task.

In Wrestling with Angels,” a rework­ing of the Gen­e­sis sto­ry, the narrator’s father defends him­self from a crea­ture that falling out of the sky and lands on him with tremen­dous force: It [is] only then that he real­ized that he had hold of an angel.” Jane Yolen’s How to Frac­ture a Fairy Tale will land that way in the reader’s con­scious­ness, bring­ing both jar­ring real­iza­tions and famil­iar con­nec­tions with sto­ries we have always known.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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