Alas, young queen, passing by

The Goose Girl has always been a strange fairy tale to me. It has some strikingly specific imagery (which no doubt originally carried metaphorical meaning that I’m too lazy to look up for this) which makes it stick in your head, but also seemed to me to be even more narratively disjointed and have less clear characterization than many other fairy tales (certainly, when I read it for the first time it was easily the most extreme example of that I’d encountered). It always seemed to me that there was something there to be teased out or reshaped.

What I’m saying is, the Goose Girl strikes me as an excellent choice for someone who wants to retell fairy tales. Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl¬†unsurprisingly does just that. It also clearly demonstrates that 1- The Goose Girl can be the basis for a great retelling and 2- I need to read more Shannon Hale.

“Poetic” is an over-used word when discussing writing, but I honestly can’t think of a better descriptor for Hale’s approach. It’s deeply rich in imagery, mostly evoking the natural world. Here’s an example from very early in the book which stood out to me:

“her chest felt like a gutted walnut shell”

This is a stunningly beautiful book. The imagery is always tonally appropriate, sometimes strikingly unexpected at the same time. There’s a sense that the story is flowing by in pictures nearly as much as it is in words.

The heightened imagery gives the whole story a dreamy, metaphorical feeling, which helped me accept the simplistic nature of the world. There are only three real settings. There’s country the heroine, Ani, comes from, where people are blonde. There’s the country she travels to, where people are brunette. (Unfortunately, everyone is very white.) In between them is the forest. They’re simple settings, but there is character to them.

And in any case, the real focus of the story is Ani’s emotional growth. I can understand if some readers find her offputting, especially at first. She starts out incredibly privileged and insulated from the world (and the reality of how privileged she is). But she also starts out with clear anxieties and fears (mostly about being poorly suited to being a ruler and not being as good at things as others), which I found made her relatable. And she grows far beyond the person she is at the beginning.

The plot follows the fairy tale quite closely overall, but turns each stage of the story into a stage of Ani’s becoming a wiser and stronger person. The incident with her mother’s handkerchief and the subsequent loss of it seems like a strange detail in the fairy tale that should have led somewhere but didn’t- Hale makes it about Ani’s anxieties regarding her mother and Ani’s self-esteem. Even though I knew the broad points of what was going to happen, I stayed up way too late because I couldn’t stop reading. I was too invested in the characters, and how things were going to happen, to stick to my sleep schedule. Hale also raises the stakes during the later parts of the story, making Ani’s better knowledge, confidence, and new friends crucial.

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. The narrative is very firlmly rooted in Ani’s perspective, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of the cast seem like full people and others don’t. Enna and some of Ani’s forest friends are feel developed (Enna apparently gets her own book), but others are mostly one (plot-relevant) trait. The villain hits a middle ground- we know her motivations and they seem believable enough, but it would have been nice to have been able to go deeper into the roots of her behavior (there’s also an aspect of “evil slut” to her, which only occurred to me in retrospect).

If you have any interest in fairy tale retellings, I definitely recommend this. Actually, I recommend it if you just have an interest in language. I don’t think the characters and aspects of the setting will work for everyone, but they certainly worked for me.

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