Jennifer Donnelly’s fairy tale retellings are beautiful in their complexity and their reimagining; but make no mistake, the beauty of the writing doesn’t equate with “beauty” being foremost among the traits of the main characters in her newest fantasy “Poisoned,” or her previous fractured fairy tale, “Stepsister.” Both young adult fairy tales are beautiful in the sense that they take fairy tales in which originally the most important trait of the young women — Snow White and Cinderella — is their beauty and change our concept of what beauty is. Donnelly turns that ideal on its head. And while the Disney cartoon version shows that both fairy tale creations love animals, there isn’t much else about them that has any depth or substance.
Donnelly’s retellings couldn’t be more different that the originals. In “Poisoned,” for example, Sophie (Snow White) is lovely, but we learn her biggest failure is that she believes all the negativity she has been told by her stepmother about how her kindness is a terrible fault. In fact, she’s been led to believe that kindness and compassion are so bad that because of her tendencies to be caring, she will never be a competent ruler. She must marry a prince or member of royalty from another country who will be able to actually control her country, Greenlands, with royal indifference, shows of power, and — most importantly — a lack of compassion. So Sophie pretends to be an avid hunter, a flirt, charming, and adept at hiding her innermost desires. But from the beginning, Donnelly reveals how Sophie is kindhearted. And, as we soon find out, Sophie’s heart is what is at the center of this story — both literally and figuratively.
Sophie’s stepmother, the queen regent, who has controlled Sophie’s country since the death of Sophie’s father, is not just a one-dimensional figure as she is in the original fairy tale. There’s even a clever twist regarding the question she asks her magic mirror (hint: it’s not “who’s the fairest of them all?”). Good literature requires multidimensional villains, and this queen has a tragic past that has determined her present conduct. We learn the “whys” behind the cruelty and the reason for her betrayal of the princess.
This is also a coming-of-age story, and we see the princess evolve from a foolish young girl who is taken in by the handsome face of a suitor to become a young woman who learns that it’s what is in one’s heart that counts, not what’s on her (or his) face. She begins by believing that “Kindness is weakness. Kindness is dangerous,” but matures to the understanding that it’s our heart that makes us kind, it’s our heart that makes us love, and it’s our heart that makes us willing to sacrifice ourselves for others — that our love actually makes us brave.
The writing is exquisite and Donnelly is able to include some Aesop-like scenes where an animal that Sophie had saved comes to her rescue. One example is a dog who was frightened of a wolf that Sophie saved from the ravaging hunting dogs in the beginning of the story. The queen orders the dog killed for its cowardice, but before that can happen, Sophie lets the dog escape. To punish Sophie, the queen orders the son of the keeper of the dogs, a young boy, whipped — just another of the queen’s cruelties. The dog later saves Sophie, and it’s pointed out that while the dog, Zara, was too small to kill a wolf, she was small enough to be able to save Sophie when a larger dog would not have. Donnelly explains, “Sometimes the thing that makes us all wrong is the thing that makes us perfect.”
There are many lovely small statements like that which Donnelly uses to deliver the message that none of us is perfect. But in our imperfections, we can come nearer to perfection. We can choose our path and we can do what is right. And, through a message that is so supremely important in this day of Instagram “perfection” and photoshopped images of the kind of beauty to which young people “should” aspire, Donnelly creates a princess who is not that superficial embodiment of perfection. We read a fabulous and humorous scene after she is attacked, yet again, and is saved by her friends. She is covered in spots from scorpion bites, her hair has been cut off to save her, and she is covered in mud. And she realizes, in shock, that the terrible smell is coming from her. But her companions remind her that they are still there. They are still with her. They are still her friends. Donnelly writes:
“Love is a fearsome thing.
It is braver than generals, stronger than fortresses. It opens graves and pulls rings off corpses. It sits up through the long, lonely nights with a failing child. It fashions hearts out of scraps and bits and rusty things and makes them beat on, no matter how many times they break.”
Then, at the end, when Sophie finally arrives back at her castle to face her stepmother, she does not look like what the sentry had thought a princess should look like. “This thin, ragged girl could not be the princess. No proud warhorse carried her. No robes of satin and silk fluttered around her. She wore ripped trousers and a tattered shirt. A simple crown of black roses adorned her head.” But in her heart? She is the queen, and it is her heart, once derided as soft and weak, that is ultimately her strength.
This is a stunningly brilliant fantasy that really demands more than one reading to be completely appreciated. The writing and each scene are as finely crafted as a Swiss watch. The way that Donnelly takes the simple fairy tale and turns it into something that is so much more, a comment on society and power, would be fabulous as a book club book or read in a middle school language arts class. I’d love to listen to kids discussing the idea of power as it is presented in this story, because one of the ways in which Sophie is powerful is that she has the will of her people on her side. As we have seen all too recently, that can be a scary thing, but in this story, the people have witnessed firsthand Sophie’s generosity and strength of will. They know she is good. It’s fitting when, near the end of the novel, she declares to the guard, while trying to convince him to let her into the castle, that the false heir would have the guards die for him, while she is willing to die for her people. The people know that it’s true because of Sophie’s previous actions throughout the story, where she sacrificed her comfort, showed compassion, and risked her very life for them. And she did it anonymously and with no expectation of return. Just because she cared.
It’s all about what’s in our hearts — and our actions, not our words, show that.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Scholastic, the publisher, for review purposes.