K.M. Briggs,
Kate Crackernuts
(William Morrow & Co., 1980;
Canongate, 1987)

The fairy tale "Kate Crackernuts," on which Katherine Briggs bases her retelling, is a splendid one which deserves to be better known. The story has all the usual elements of fairy tales and ballads: an evil stepmother, a curse, handsome princes, a lovely princess and fairies -- and then there is Kate. Neither beautiful nor royally born, Kate is a refreshingly brave and resourceful heroine who, like Janet of "Tam Lin," is instrumental in saving those she loves and bringing about her own happily ever after.

Briggs' novel is a largely faithful retelling of the original story. Her most substantial change is to set Kate Crackernuts in a solidly historical time and place: 17th-century Scotland. Kate Maxwell is still the daughter of a poor widow, but her stepsister Katherine Lindsay is no longer a princess, only the daughter of a Scottish laird. However, this is not quite the Scotland of history books -- along with clan politics, feuds with the English and zealous witch hunts, there are real witches with real power to do harm. Kate's own mother, Grizel Maxwell, is one; her friend, the grotesque hag Mallie Gross, is another. When they put a curse on Katherine, both Kates run away to England to seek a remedy. But while posing as a servant in an English household, Kate finds yet another spellbound mortal in young Will Frankland, and begins to realize that the strange and treacherous fairy realm that has captured Will also possesses cures for both Will and Katherine -- if only Kate can be clever and brave enough to secure them before Halloween.

There is a fair amount to admire in this ambitious amalgamation of history, fantasy, fairy tale and ballad, from the meticulous historical detail of 17th-century Scotland to the audibly authentic Scottish and Yorkshire dialects. However, the large amount of Scottish politics in the first half of the book is at once too detailed to be mere background and too incidental to Kate and Katherine's less prosaic adventures to be absorbing or even necessary. It is not particularly enthralling in its own right, and only bogs an already stately pace down further.

Really likeable characters can obscure any number of other faults, but Briggs' prose is stylized and a little anachronistic, which has the effect of distancing the characters. Katherine is unchangingly sweet and good, and Kate herself is loyal, brave, resourceful and little else. Their suitors, being absent for most of the novel, are even less developed. Grizel is arguably the most interesting character, caught between a real, though unhealthy, love for her daughter, and a vicious resentment for the stepdaughter who outshines Kate. The tense triangle between Grizel, Kate and Katherine is all but resolved within the first half of the book, and no similarly interesting relationship replaces it.

Still, Kate Crackernuts has plenty to recommend itself to fairy tale, Scottish history and ballad (particularly "Tam Lin") lovers. A number of scenes and images are extremely memorable, and Briggs' prose is graceful, if a trifle chilly. Related books include Sophie Masson's Malkin, Janet McNaughton's An Earthly Knight and Clare Dunkle's Hollow Kingdom, which features yet another brave heroine called Kate. However, my favorite Kate will always be the heroine of Elizabeth Marie Pope's Perilous Gard, which succeeds in the seamless blending of history, ballad and good storytelling that Briggs doesn't quite achieve.

by Jennifer Mo
6 January 2006

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