Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Spindle's End - Robin McKinley

Another re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story. I love fairy tales re-told, I find it deeply satisfying when the author manages to explain some of the crazy things which happen in a way that makes sense. There's also something lovely about already being familiar with the overall shape of a story without knowing any of the details yet.

Robin McKinley also doesn't gloss over the difficulties. Katriona winds up with baby Rosie in her charge following the evil fairy's curse, needing to spirit her away so that she will be safe. Katriona is a long way from home, Rosie is very young, obviously Rosie will need milk to drink and Katriona can't provide it - but Katriona is a fairy, and happens to be unusually good at speaking with animals, and the animals happen to feel very protective of their princess, so Rosie winds up with a different animal nurse every day. This could easily wind up seeming very contrived, but this ability to speak with animals (which Katriona has accidentally gifted Rosie with), winds up being very central to the story, and the way in which they communicate is very different than people.

My favorite thing about Spindle's End is the way it talks about raising children. Possibly because I'm in the middle of dealing with a difficult 3-year-old, the tales of trials and tribulations that Katriona and Aunt endure while raising Rosie (and their whole village looks on bemused) feels very familiar. Rosie is a difficult, but not outrageously difficult child. Just on the harder end of normal. When Katriona's baby is born, Rosie is shocked that he seems to take up all the available time and energy of all the adults in the house - Katriona's response is "of course he does, he's a baby" which isn't the way children are usually depicted in fairy tales.

My next favorite thing is "baby magic". There is very little plot reason at all for this, it is just part of the way the world works. Children around the age of 3 go through a few months of wild and uncontrolled magic that isn't entirely harmless, and needs to be dispelled. The solution is to send them to stay with the local fairy (generally a single woman as fairy's don't often marry) for a month or so until the baby magic passes. As the mother of a 3-year-old, I can say that being obligated to send your child to stay elsewhere for a month or so because you are unable to deal with their behaviour seems like the most wonderful thing imaginable. My parenting book about this particular age is called "Your 3-year-old: Friend or Enemy?" and suggests that often during this stage, your best bet is to ship your child out to daycare or hire a babysitter, and spend as little time with them as possible. Of course in our day and age of over-involved parenting the thought of having the little darlings out of our sight for even a moment is supposed to be anathema... So Katriona and Aunt often have a bevy of "baby-magic boarders" around making their lives more difficult, which entertained me immensely.

I'm not entirely happy about the ending. Once Rosie's 21st birthday is approaching, and the evil fairy Pernicia starts actually getting involved in the story, I had a lot more trouble making sense of things. I think it boils down to the fact that I love Robin McKinley's world-building, and the little details of every-day life. I'm not as crazy about her descriptions, especially of magical castles and things that are not-quite-real. I had to work really hard to understand what was going on at various points towards the end of the story. I didn't get a picture in my head the way I did with "The Children's Book", and often had to re-read parts to make sense of what was going on. But the ending itself was quite satisfying. Especially the way in which Pernicia is finally defeated. The Rosie/Peony situation at the very end felt a bit contrived...but made the ending much much nicer. There's just a little bit of me that keeps thinking "should they really be allowed to do that?", but when everyone winds up much happier...it does seem entirely right.

I'm really looking forward to reading this one to Elli once she's old enough to appreciate it. Sleeping Beauty is one of her absolute favorite Disney fairy tales, and this story has quite a few elements in common - as well as having a very strong princess character who does most of the rescuing herself.

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