Review of the Day: Into the Wild
Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst. Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin Group). $15.99
In honor of the arrival of The Class of 2K7, I shall review one of your books here today. May all your titles be as engaging as this one.
There is a temptation in picking up a novel containing fairy tale characters to judge it swiftly and surely and then lay it down without reading it through. And when I found that first time novelist Sarah Beth Durst had based her children’s novel, “Into the Wild” on the fairy tale genre I was not impressed. I picked up the book with a sigh, started reading, and to my surprise found myself chapter by chapter enmeshed in a tale of free will, the very definition of happiness, self-sacrifice, and out-and-out good storytelling. It’s very difficult to take old worn conceits in overly well-known fairy tales and then spin them into something fresh, new, and touching. Durst has a style entirely of her own that bears watching. Consider this an intense debut.
Julie is the daughter of Rapunzel. No, really. She is. You see, long ago all the fairy tales you ever heard of were prisoner to something called The Wild. It was a state of being, really. Forcing its fairy tale characters to relive their stories over and over, The Wild was almost impossible to escape. It sapped your free will, made you forget anything prior to the current story you were living, and surrounded you. Only after Rapunzel found a way to defeat it after multiple failures were the characters able to cross over into the real world and live normal lives. In fact, what remains of The Wild sits crossly as a big leafy lump under Julie’s bed. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that one day The Wild escapes. Now it’s rapidly devouring both Massachusetts and everyone who lives there, forcing them to become characters in already established roles. It’s up to Julie and her step-brother Puss-in-Boots to bring The Wild under control. That is, if it doesn’t get Julie under its control first.
I’ll lay it on the line for you. After reading the first chapter of this book I was seriously concerned for its well-being. Fairy tales, thought I. I am sick to death of fairy tales. If it’s not “The Fairy Tale Detectives” by Michael Buckley then it’s that Sondheim musical “Into the Woods”. Actually, by a weird coincidence I had read Buckley's first “Sisters Grimm” book just prior to picking up Durst’s, and my fear was that her title would be a pale imitation of the first. As I read it through, though, I found myself coming to the slow realization that not only was Durst’s book a great read, there were layers of depth and intelligence to it that far exceeded anything Buckley's series (for all its amusement) was capable of.
Durst starts off slowly, introducing old characters in new formats. The seven dwarfs are sexist old men. Cinderella drives a wild orange vehicle and wears hopelessly gaudy clothes. And Goldilocks? Totally selfish. You wouldn’t want to meet her. So you begin by thinking that this is just another cheery/silly tale. Then it gets dark. Fast. Dark and good. Dark and good and wholly engaging. The Wild isn’t just the villain of the piece. It’s the ultimate villain. If you find yourself finishing a fairy tale while you’re in it, that’s basically the end of you. Your mind at that point will be sapped of all your memories and your will no longer your own. This might sound quaint under another writer’s thumb, but Durst makes it perfectly clear right from the start that this is an intolerable situation. And the implications are just as horrific as any story by the Grimms. Do YOU want to get eaten by a wolf every day for the rest of your life, just to be cut out of it by a huntsman again and again and again? No, thank you.
I loved that Durst knew some of the lesser known fairy tales as well. As a kid I owned a beautifully illustrated collection of stories including the tale of the boy who scales a glass mountain and another where a girl dropped roses and jewels from her mouth every time she spoke. Both of these appear in this book, though Durst is quick to point out that anyone who spits thorny flowers and spiky gems from their tender lips is going to suffer as a result. The author also keeps to the original fairy tale versions for the most part. In Cinderella’s tale the birds peck out the step-sisters’ eyes. In Snow White’s tale the queen must dance in red hot shoes until she dies. You don’t see any of this firsthand, so don’t come away from this review thinking that this is some kind of kiddie horror book or anything. This isn't Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series. Durst walks the fine line between telling and showing and “Into the Wild” is completely appropriate for kids in the fourth grade and up. Still, at the same time it’s not pussyfooting around some of the darker aspects of the folktales we’ve all grown up knowing in one format or another.
As for the story itself, in Julie the author explains perfectly why the daughter of Rapunzel would be the only person capable of saving the day. As the book itself explains, “Julie was the only one who could recognize the story bits and who didn’t already belong to a specific story. ‘I’m the only one who straddles both worlds,’ Julie said.” This duality has always hurt her in the past. Now it becomes her strength, and she’s able to use it, even when she gets betrayed by someone she loves. The Wild, for its part, also makes sense as a character. As it explains at one point, “I give them [the characters] a beginning, a middle, and an end; a once upon a time and a happily ever after. I give rewards to the good and punishment to the bad. I give order and sense to an otherwise arbitrary existence.” And who amongst us hasn’t wanted a little order at some point in their past? Or thought, when they were young, how much they’d like to be a prince or princess in a tale? Durst taps into that desire and then deftly turns it on its head.
Now I had some small concerns here and there with the book. First and foremost, there’s the fact that Julie is (aside from her adopted cat brother) an only child. Anyone who remembers her mother’s story, however, knows that in the story Rapunzel had twins. Considering that most of these stories hearken back to their origins, it seems odd that this would be different. Plus the fairy tale characters seem to have escaped from The Wild in the Dark Ages. Yet Julie’s birth has been delayed until the present day which, by anyone’s definition, is a long time to come to term. So does this make the characters immortal? Or did they escape more recently than that? I also felt that the true villain of the piece, the one who allows The Wild to grow in the first place, was a bit obvious right from the start. Then again, I’m a woman in her late twenties. Who am I to say that kids will see this one coming? I think they will, but I could be wrong.
But altogether it works beautifully. Rapunzel often sends her daughter off to school by telling her, “Have an uneventful day.” When excitement can only be paired with personal danger, that kind of farewell make a heckuva lot of sense. Basically, this is a strong debut with a nice of what it hopes to accomplish. For those of you tired of fairy tale stories or even books where the plot is basically a fairy tale adapted into a new telling, “Into the Wild” comes across as a breath of fresh air. Worth reading.
On shelves June 21, 2007.