Donna Jo Napoli
& Richard Tchen,
(Dutton, 1999)

Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen retell "Rumplestiltskin" in Spinners, a dark and complex novel that explores human motivation and innocence lost.

I have never liked the story of "Rumplestiltskin." It's loaded with unlikeable characters: the braggart miller, the miller's daughter who goes back on her word, the king who tells her "I'll either kill you or marry you." The only person who keeps his bargain is Rumplestiltskin, and look what happens to him.

In Spinners, Napoli and Tchen begin a little further back with the story of a tailor in love with a farmer's daughter who, desperate to win her from the coarse but wealthy miller who also pays her court, masters the magic of spinning straw into gold. He pays a price for his desperation, becoming so physically deformed by his efforts that even his true love rejects him and marries the miller. Her story ends shortly thereafter; it is her daughter, Saskia, who becomes the focus of the tale.

When the miller incapacitates himself and can no longer support the two of them, Saskia turns to spinning to earn money for food. She becomes expert at it, spinning fine and unusual yarns which eventually and unfortunately draw the attention of the king -- who summons her to the palace and, in response to the miller's foolishly blurted words, sets Saskia her fatal task. But Saskia has also drawn the attention of another, a rumpled, deformed spinner who lives in a small house in the woods. The king's impossible task gives him just the right reason to re-enter her life, if not to reveal the secret that binds them together more strongly than gold thread spun from straw.

While all the characters are complex and well-rounded, Saskia especially redeems herself from the original tale. She is strong and determined; the reader cannot help but admire her pluck. Her emotions and reactions are authentic; she responds to the king in just the way one hopes she would. Yes, she reneges on her bargain, but it can be argued that she did not really know the price she would be paying -- and she still pays an enormous price. The other characters are also given motivations and depth of character which resonate in the reader. Several of the characters are identified only through their roles: miller, king and, except for the disparaging name given by his sweetheart, the tailor-spinner, and the lack of identification underscores the importance of names in the tale.

There can be no entirely happy ending for a tale such as this, but the dramatic conclusion is satisfying nonetheless. Certainly, Napoli and Tchen arouse the reader's sympathy for all the characters to some degree, but what is most significant and remarkable is how their retelling transcends the original story to paint a dark portrait shot through with gold.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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