Redemption?

Redemption?

A review of Jen Calonita’s “Flunked” (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

What would we do with fairy tales if they didn’t have villains? Fairy Tale villains are so delightfully exciting and they inject that needed bit of challenge and excitement into a tale. They have so much potential for complexity and depth. Jen Calonita’s “Flunked” is a tale that brings together fairy tale villains from narratives like Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Red Ridinghood, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel in a tale of redemption and relapse into villainy.

When Cinderella’s evil stepmother Flora recognized that she was living in a society that rejected her for her villainous path, she sought to redeem herself in the eyes of her fellow citizens by creating a school devoted to the reformation of villains and those who show signs of wandering toward villainous paths. She created the Fairy Tale Reform School, devoted to turning villains into heroes and giving them the skills that would allow them to be successful. Employing the Evil Queen from Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf from Red Ridinghood, and the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid, this school is a rogues gallery of fairy tale villains and it makes for an interesting, if terrifying, experience.

Gilly has had to become a thief in order to keep her family fed since Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother started wholesale manufacturing the glass slippers that Gilly’s father invented and the boot-maker became poor, barely able to keep his family fed and their boot home safe and cozy. But, when Gilly gets caught stealing to provide for her family her parents and the police in their fairy tale community send her to Fairy Tale Reform School to find out how to be a hero and what she finds there are mysteries, friendship, her own desire to make the world a better place… and a lot of near-death experiences.

Even though Calonita’s “Flunked” is a fun and playful story, it is also filled with social questions and critiques. Calonita raises questions about poverty and social inequality, illustrating what Gilly has to do in order to keep her family fed and raising questions about the morality of theft. She creates a connection to figures like Robin Hood by portraying Gilly stealing from the wealthy to provide for her family.

Calonita uses the figure of the princess and the almost-worship they receive in order to ask questions about celebrity culture and ponder why so many people envy the wealthy and popular even when their policies may hurt those who are impoverished. Yet Calonita also questions social stigma and abjection, exploring the way that those who have been judged to be villainous have to constantly strive to escape from the stigma attached to them. The creation of the Fairy Tale Reform School is as much about finding a safe space for former villains as it is about creating a space where people can acquire new skills and find the hero within them. With a Sea Witch who keeps forgetting everything she is doing and a spell to erase memory, the theme of erasing the past is a key one in “Flunked”, pointing to the way that one’s history continues to haunt one. Calonita asks questions about the boundary between hero and villain and challenges the easy morality of most fairy tales by complicating her characters.

Gilly is uniquely suited to solving the world’s issues because she recognizes that villains have unique skills that others don’t and that sometimes a villain has to do what a hero isn’t capable of doing.

To find out more about “Flunked”, and discover more about Jen Calonita, visit http://www.jencalonitaonline.com/MG_Flunked.html

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Harvested

HarvestedA review of Garth Nix’s “Hansel’s Eyes” in A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Aladdin Paperbacks, New York)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Hansel’s Eyes”, Garth Nix’s re-telling of the Hansel and Gretel tale, the two siblings cope with parents who are constantly trying to get rid of them. Set in a modern urban environment, Hansel and Gretel generally cope with these attempts at abandonment by bringing maps, compasses, water, and food. However, when their ‘hagmother’ decides to use chloroform on them, they wake up in an abandoned part of the city, run down due to economic decay.

Lured into a video game store that is the only thing still functioning in the abandoned parts of the city, Hansel and Gretel are abducted by a witch to be harvested for their organs and sold piece-by-piece to wealthy members of society. 

Nix transforms the original tale of hunger and cannibalism into a modern re-visioning of wealth disparity and the treatment of the poor as disposable commodities. Nix points to the issues with the current economic system in its exploitation of the bodies of the economically oppressed in order to make further wealth for the rich, but rather than exploiting the labour of these bodies, he makes this bodily deprivation literal, illustrating the dangers in de-valuing the lives of people in poverty and elevating the lives of the wealthy. Nix illustrates that we are already living in a cannibalistic society that feeds off of bodies in poverty through exploitation, funnelling the excess of wealth to a smaller and smaller population. 

The connection between organ harvesting and the Hansel and Gretel tale is made more explicit by portraying the witch as blind and wanting new eyes. Despite the ableist potentials of this tale by presenting a woman with disabilities as the villain (as so many fairy tales do), Nix creates a complex tale of the consumptive narrative of modern capitalism, making Hansel’s eyes just another part of the system that consumes bodies in order to benefit the wealthy and powerful. In this case, the power represented is magic and its seductive quality is illustrated by Nix in his portrayal of the allure of magic for Gretel and the danger of her forgetting where she came from in order to access this new level of influence and potency. 

To discover more about Garth Nix, visit http://www.garthnix.com