Donna Jo Napoli,
The Magic Circle
(Dutton, 1993)

Donna Jo Napoli retells the story of "Hansel and Gretel" from the perspective of the witch in this evocative, haunting novel about the triumph of love and the human spirit over adversity.

She is known as the Ugly One, a hunchbacked midwife the center of whose universe is her lovely daughter, Asa. Able to assist in difficult births, she is encouraged by a scheming neighbor to extend into developing healing sorceries and casting out and controlling demons. She becomes known for her ability to control and command demons from within her magic circle and she is well rewarded for her abilities. One day, though, she becomes just careless enough to be ensnared by the very demons she seeks to command.

Accused of witchcraft, she is sentenced to be burned. The demons help her escape, and she takes refuge far way from her village, deep in a forest. She lives out her days doing whatever she needs to in order to survive and to shield her mind from the demons, and she decorates her hut with candy made from beet syrup, the only reminder of her daughter she will allow herself. Otherwise, she has shut out the demons for nine years, shut out all memories of her life -- until the children come, the brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel.

The book is brief, not much more than 100 pages long, and each word is carefully chosen. The Ugly One tells the story in first-person present tense, an appropriate choice since the narrative is centered entirely around the character's thought processes and motives. As the narrative draws close to the inevitable conclusion with its subtly shifting perspective, the reader is well caught up and sympathetic to the Ugly One's plight.

Unlike other fairy tale retellings which simply offer a flip side of the story, The Magic Circle offers the reader the opportunity to sink beneath the surface of the tale, although he or she will emerge changed for the experience.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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