Donna Jo Napoli,
Zel
(Dutton, 1996)

Donna Jo Napoli gives the story of "Rapunzel" a psychological twist in Zel.

Zel lives on an alm in the Alps of 16th century Switzerland, alone with Mother, the only real company she has had for her nearly 13 years. She is a happy and innocent girl, taking delight in simple pleasures and content with her fairly isolated world. Mother tends to all her needs with remarkable devotion.

Just before her 13th birthday, Zel accompanies her mother on a rare trip to the market in the town. It is there that she encounters Konrad, a count's son, helping to hold his horse while the blacksmith tends her. Konrad is smitten with the girl and promises her a reward; Zel asks for a goose egg for the barren goose at her alm which has filled its nest with rocks. Konrad gives her the egg, although not directly, much to his disappointment, and his attraction turns to a near obsession as he begins his search for the curious girl named Zel.

When Mother learns of the young man's attentions, she is not at all pleased; in fact, she is panicked. Zel is the most precious thing in her world -- she gave up her soul for the power which eventually brought Zel to her. Her dearest hope is that Zel too will choose to relinquish her soul to become a witch, thus binding her daughter to her forever. But Zel is still too young to make that choice, although old enough to let a young man turn her head. Mother decides that she must do something drastic right away: she imprisons Zel in a high stone tower, magically growing Zel's hair to make the famous braids which she will later climb. And because Napoli follows the fairy tale, we know that Konrad will find her as well, with predictable results.

Napoli tells the story from three points of view: Zel, in third person present; Konrad in third person present; and Mother, in first person present. The multiple perspectives bring into focus the dual driving forces of obsession and possession as both Konrad and Mother practically lose all reason in their individual quests. Furthermore, it illustrates the impact on Zel as she is driven further and further away from her own humanity. Still, when change comes for Zel, it comes as a result of her own choices, and she lives with the consequences of her choices.

Part love story, part psychological drama, part horror story, Zel features a taut narrative replete with small telling details and subtle imagery. The characters are deftly drawn and well-rounded: Mother's character demands sympathy as well as censure, and Konrad's arrogance is almost his undoing. Zel emerges as a strong and independent young woman capable of healing herself.

Retold fairy tales are a dime a dozen to day, but for a complex and fascinating tale which is anything but run-of-the-mill, reach for Zel.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



Buy Zel from Amazon.com.