The Tale of the Miller's Daughter
by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Published by Papaveria Press
65 pages, 2006
Small But Not Slight
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
You wouldn't think there would be much to do in retelling a fairy tale. There's a conflict, something magical happens, greed or hatred is punished and "they live happily ever after." Right?
I appreciate the retelling of a story, but I don't necessarily pay attention; it has to involve something really wow for me to give it my attention. So okay, I remember "Rumplestiltskin" a little. If you really analyze it, it's a baffling story. A girl is said to be able to weave straw into gold (oh yeah, right) and the task is performed by this -- as I recall him -- a nasty capering gnome-like guy who tells the girl she has to guess his name or the jig is up. He's so confident she won't guess that he dances around a fire one night (if I've got it wrong, it's been a while okay?) singing about how "she'll never guess that my name is 'Rumplestiltskin' hah hah, so there!" Of course he pays for his arrogance and pride, all is well. And she lives happily ever after. I guess.
Somewhere along the line, JoSelle Vanderhooft decided to find out just who this girl was. She inverts the story so that the little mean capering guy is a savior. He is kind, he tries to help her. The horrors here are her father the miller who never bothered giving his daughter a name, and the sadistic monster of a king who's decided that her talents are greatly useful to him. See, daddy bragged that she could do this spinning; she never once said she could and the king essentially buys her from daddy so he can have gold to fight his wars and to torture people and have a grand old time. She's trapped and powerless.
At just 65 pages, this is a very short book, but the author has the stuff. She tells a rich story and provides scenes of fear and terror and sorrow. You truly aren't sure it's going to end well as there are so many ways things could go wrong.
Vanderhooft is a poet as well as a writer of fiction. I'm starting to believe that poets who write fiction do have an edge. Two writers whose abilities I most admire are Ursula Le Guin and James Sallis and both are poets. Vanderhooft's telling doesn't work the way my favorite stories usually work; I like dialogue-heavy prose. I like getting to know characters and lack the patience for long clumps of narrative. But The Tale of the Miller's Daughter hooked me. The author uses words so well, often differently, you sense you are not in a familiar time and place. At times, scenes made me cringe; the king is a sick creepy evil horror, worse than many of the sick evil creepy villains in current literature and I am squeamish enough to skip some descriptions of blood and pain. But the little man is worth rooting for, and the nameless, determined, badly-used miller's daughter deserves better than she gets. And she deserves a name. Isn't that what this story is about? The magic of naming something and the power names wield is part of many legends and cultures.
The girl becomes the queen in this tale, but her failure to provide her miserable husband with a child puts her again at risk and it's here that the story feels almost modern. It's not the little man who taunts her with her ignorance, but the king and, once again, it's arrogance that wins for her. She hears the gloating king sing out his "nyan nyah" song and knows she can save them both. She gets her vengeance on the men who have abused her. And she escapes with Rumplestiltskin. It's not clear that they'll live happily ever after, but anything is an improvement when you're free and you get to choose how to live.
By definition, the Tale of the Miller's Daughter is most likely a novelette or novella and the price seems a bit high for such a small volume. But I'm not sure this isn't one way of bringing such stories out in the future. It is well worth reading. | October 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.