Review of the Day: Letters from Rapunzel
Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Holmes. Harper Collins. $15.99.
Gail Carson Levine has a lot to answer for.
When Our Lady of “Ella Enchanted” proved that biggie awards could go to fairy tale-inspired fantasies, this knowledge launched an unprecedented variety of fairy tale freakouts. As we speak we are still in the midst of a kind of folktale maelstrom, so you’ll forgive me if my initial sideways glance at “Letters from Rapunzel,” appeared to produce just more of the same. The winner of the 2004 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest (run by Harper Collins for those first-time never-before-published types), Ms. Sara Lewis Holmes won it fair and square and this here book is the result. Despite its cover and title, the book is not, in fact, one of the fairytale ilk. Using the Rapunzel motif, Holmes paints a picture of a family whose patriarch is suffering from chronic depression. Balancing out its painful subject matter with its heroine’s wit, whimsy, and disconnect from reality, “Letters from Rapunzel” manages a delicate balancing act that comes to a happy end for both character and reader.
She’s been sending letters to an unknown post office box ever since her father disappeared from her life. For Rapunzel (the name she chooses to give herself) life was fine until her dad went through a new bout of crippling depression and had to be taken away to recover. What does that mean for our heroine? It means trying to put up with teachers and principals who think that just because you aced some test they gave out, you’re a genius. A genius, mind you, who’d rather write letters to a stranger than end up in some lousy class for smart kids where Andrew, the boy she hates, is waiting to torment her. As for the letters, Rapunzel started writing them when she found a letter from her father written to an unknown address. Hoping against hope that maybe she’ll be able to contact someone who can help her dad shrug off his “evil spell”, Rapunzel does everything she can to contact her mysterious someone. Yet when she meets only silence and an increase in her own problems, it takes some detective work and self-possession to get to the bottom of what exactly happened to Rapunzel’s father.
To whip together both fairytale and realistic elements like this is a risk. It would be all too easy for the book of this sort to make a sideways stumble towards the land of twee. Cute references to the story of Rapunzel in the midst of a family drama? The danger that it could become too sweet is immense. I’m still not entirely certain that it was wise to equate Rapunzel’s father’s depression with the moniker “an evil spell”, but at least the author makes it clear that when it comes to equating reality with fantasy, our heroine isn’t the most reliable of narrators. The story is also an interesting take on the usually staid and solid “problem books”.
A librarian making a list of books dealing with mental illnesses might just slip this title under the “Depression” category without a second thought. I do think that it’s lighter and, I dare say, more interesting than a lot of books on this topic for kids out there. That is not a criticism. If every book written on depression rendered the reader (forgive me) depressed, a fair share of kids would be disinclined to delve in that area. Holmes has had the sense then to imbue her book with some fun. I initially resisted it, but I ended up liking the heroine. When handed a charming science assignment that requires her to find ten different ways to rescue the character of Rapunzel from her tower using simple machines, our heroine is inventive enough to say, “but hey, the assignment didn’t say we had to keep her alive, did it?” Hence method number one, “Use a giant lever to pry her out. Be prepared for the funeral.” Holmes doesn’t overdo the humor, letting it float the top of a page here and there without breaking up the action or appearing where it might be inappropriate. For example, the ritual that comes with birthdays, wherein the birthdayee feels older, is described as, “just a cake-and-icing-induced hallucination.”
The letter element is, of course, the hook. It’s a booktalking point. The idea of mysterious letters sent into the vast unknown is a bit old-fashioned in this high tech day and age. That might account for books like this and “The Mailbox” by Audrey Shafer that play on the mystery and allure of sending mail to unknown personages. The book also splits apart continually into little asides that serve to break up the text. I’m beginning to suspect that this is some kind of new trend in children’s book publishing since I’m seeing it in a lot of other books as well. Kirsten’s Miller’s “Kiki Strike” did it. “The Thing About Georgie” by Lisa Graff has lots of them. And in this particular book you’re likely to trip over one of Rapunzel's “Fairy-Tale Fortunes” or school assignment every three pages or so. Does it hurt the book in the end? Not necessarily. It’s just hard to get into a story or take it seriously when you’re constantly being jerked out of the central tale as frequently as is found here. It makes for more enjoyable reading, perhaps, but does it make for a worthwhile read?
You will be happy to hear that “Letters from Rapunzel”, doesn’t have any easy answers. No miracles or unlikely coincidences spring up. It is not, I should add, a book that Holmes should stop with. While well told, the book feels like a novel found in an author’s early career. And as it’s not the only Rapunzel-like story out this year, feel free to also check out “Into the Wild” by Sarah Beth Durst and “Into the Woods” by Lyn Gardner for your standard retellings of classic folktales (and their skewed results). This may even make a good crossover title for those kids who only like fantasy and need some kind of fantastical hook to lure them into the scary realm of realistic fiction. Fun and smart enough for your consideration.
Notes on the Cover: Looks to me as if Harper Collins wants to have its cake and eat it too. Deliberately playing up the Rapunzelish elements on the right, the left-hand side of the image is downright mod. A kind of suburban kitch. I’d have appreciated this more if the Rapunzel-like girl actually bore some resemblance to our heroine at large. As it is, plenty of kids will be suckered into thinking this to be a kind of fantasy novel. Sneaky, Harper. Very very sneaky.