A WILD SWAN AND OTHER TALES. By Michael Cunningham. Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. FSG. 144 pages. $23.
Didn’t we all wonder how Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold? Weren’t we all curious about the wicked old woman who lured Hansel and Gretel to her house made of candy? And wasn’t it hard to understand what Beauty saw in the Beast? I’m sure many of us heard the same unsatisfying answer from our parents after reading the Brothers Grimm: It’s just a fairy tale. No one can really spin straw into gold. No one lives in a house made of candy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham (“The Snow Queen,” “The Hours”) had similar questions as a child, and offers his answers in a collection of 10 hilarious, magical, imaginative 21st-century fairy tales, beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. The book dares readers to question assumptions, believe in magic, and ask what happens after “happily ever after.”
What? and Where?
Cunningham is a powerful storyteller and speaks to readers directly, as if we are sitting at his feet listening to him tell the tale. In the title story, “A Wild Swan” (derived from the Grimms’ “The Six Swans”), an evil stepmother who doesn’t want to be stuck raising “brawling, boastful boys” turns her husband the king’s 12 sons into swans and commands them to fly away. Cunningham asks, “Do we blame her? Do we really?”
Eventually the boys’ sister figures out a way to bring her brothers back and restore them to men, all except for one who is left with a wing for his right arm. The boy is ridiculed by his father and brothers, and even the palace cats who “tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.” He is hindered by his body as he struggles to navigate the world.
“The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.” In the end, “A Wild Swan” demonstrates the significance of accepting that which makes us different.
The Grimm fairy tales, written in 1812, were not intended for children, but over the years many of the stories (“Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc.) were sanitized and transformed into cash cows by Walt Disney. Cunningham was introduced to the nonsanitized versions as a child, and chose 10 of his favorites for his collection.
He worked on these stories when he got stuck working on “The Snow Queen” (2014). His pleasure is evident in these engaging stories that draw us in with their wicked humor and hold us there with insights into human nature.
In “Jacked,” we learn that Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk”) is not a very smart boy. “This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the window when it rains,” Cunningham writes. “Jack is the boy who says, ‘Wow, dude, magic beans, really?’ ”
The story follows the plot of the original: Jack climbs the magic beanstalk to steal from the giant and his wife. In Cunningham’s version, though, the giant’s marriage is in a slump and his wife finds herself drawn to Jack’s selfishness and insatiability. The wife is bored, she’s let herself go, and she watches Jack with envy as he steals their gold, their hen and even their harp.
Envy rears its head again in “Little Man,” the tale of Rumpelstiltskin whose reasons for wanting the Queen’s baby are unexpected and profound.
In this compelling collection, Cunningham reimagines classic fairy tales and offers vividly entertaining backstories that alter our previously held assumptions. Who knew Hansel and Gretel were not victims but the victimizers? Or that all Rumpelstiltskin had to do to make gold was believe in magic? He reminds us that reading is an act of pleasure and that “magic is sometimes all about knowing where the secret door is, and how to open it.”