Kate Bernheimer, editor,
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
(Anchor, 1999)

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is a collection of essays in which twenty-four contemporary women writers explore folk and fairy tales in the context of how they see -- or don't see -- themselves. Each writer pursues her own perceptions, and the essays range from personal reflection to literary analysis. They are arranged alphabetically by author's last name, and this organization lends randomness to the collection.

In some of the essays, the writers look at how particular tales affected their lives while in others, fairy tales are looked at as a genre. Some writers see the stories as imbued with transformational power while others view them as relics of a sexist society. The best and most thought-provoking essays are those in which the tales are viewed as personal mirrors.

One such essay is Julia Alvarez's "An Autobiography of Scheherezade." She recounts how reading about the brave and resourceful young woman who saved herself through the power of story inspired her during her childhood in the Dominican Republic. Later, the ability to tell stories would sustain her while adjusting to life in the United States, and as an adult, it would become her livelihood.

Margaret Atwood combines personal reflection with literary criticism in "Of Souls as Birds." This essay explores the folk motif of transformation into birds, relating it to her own reflections on death and the essence of the soul both as a child and as an adult.

The best and most successful essay is Linda Sexton Gray's "Bones and Blood Puddings: Revisiting 'The Juniper Tree.'" Sexton skillfully weaves together analysis of the story with recollections of her troubled life with her mother, the late poet Anne Sexton, as well as an ongoing description of preparing a meal for her own family. This is done so seamlessly that it becomes unnerving, as when she makes a smooth transition from chopping vegetables for salad to the stepmother of the story cutting her stepson's body into pieces. The final paragraph caps off the essay perfectly -- the reader doesn't know whether to feel comforted or to shudder.

Some of the essays are tepid or say little that is new. A few seem overly obscure or drift a little far from the theme. The collection is probably best suited for dipping into rather than reading from start to finish, and overall, it has appeal, particularly for the fairy tale enthusiast.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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