Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reworking of Hansel and Gretel

Because I always knew Hansel & Gretel was a Holocaust story:

I have a very high standard when it comes to reading about the Holocaust. This is not because I am personally connected to it in any way (while I had many family members fight in WWII we are not Jewish or from western Europe) (although the jury is still out on my one great grandmother's origins so this could actually change but she emigrated in the late 19th century) (more on that subject later).

Part of what bothers me about most Holocaust books (especially those written for kids and/or teens) is that they are so manipulative. The novels in some ways are the worst as they use the backdrop of a global atrocity to wring emotion out of readers that they would not receive otherwise. (Yes, I'm talking about a striped pajama boy here.) I also think we have reached a saturation point on the subject to a certain degree. I say all this just to make you understand that a Holocaust book is a very hard sell for me. The only two that have truly stayed with me over the years are Anne Frank's Diary and BRIAR ROSE by Jane Yolen. (Better than DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC in my opinion - although that is very good too, of course.) Then over the weekend I finally read KINDERGARTEN by Peter Rushforth and it was simply one of the most impressive books I have ever read. Period.

Rushforth approaches his subject from the side - there's almost a WG Sebald type feel to how he tells this story. The protagonist, "Corrie" (for Cornelius) is a 16 year old British boy in 1978. He and his two younger brothers live in the countryside with their father, headmaster of a nearby boarding school, in a house next door to their grandmother. The book is set over the Christmas holidays the same year that the boys lost their mother in an airline hijacking in Rome. Their father has gone to the US for a fund raising drive to help terror victims organized by other families of those on the plane and thus the boys are with their grandmother, who was originally born in Germany but lived in England since just prior to WWII. When she was younger, Lilli was a renowned artist of fairy tale paintings. She stopped painting after moving to England but lately her work is receiving some new appreciation. Over the years she has given the family some of her old work and Corrie has a picture she did for Hansel and Gretel on his bedroom wall. The painting and the German poem "Kinderstimmen" by Joseph von Eichendorff have inspired Corrie, a talented musician, to compose a song. His ongoing work on the piece is what prompts much of the book's ruminations on "Hansel and Gretel" and other fairy tales of lost children.

At the family settles in for Lilli's traditional German Christmas celebration, they are also riveted by another terrorist nightmare going on in West Berlin. A group has taken over a school and promised to start killing children if some of their comrades are not released from prison. The authorities, of course, are refusing to do so. The standoff is being covered on the television and has caused the boys, already missing their mother so much, to mourn her anew.

For Corrie, all of this, his own now motherless siblings, the lost children in the fairy tale, the children in the school, is powerful stuff. He and his brother Jo have fallen into a habit of comedy to cope with their sorrow but both are aware of how deep their feelings go. Jo in particular is struggling mightily and Corrie wants to help him but is not sure how. To keep himself distracted he has become obsessed with a cache of old files he has found in the school's music room where he goes each day to work on his composition. (The school is empty for the holidays but he has his father's keys and permission.) The letters are from German Jewish families who desperately tried to send their children to the school in the mid to late 1930s. At first they went simply to continue the education that was then denied them in Germany but increasingly the letters became more and more emotional as the parents lose access to the money they need to pay tuition and fees but their need to keep their children out of Germany only intensifies. At one point Corrie reads a letter from a little girl who was homesick and after the holidays has decided not to return to school. It is 1938 and her family decides to seek shelter in another country. Rushforth writes:

In October a postcard had come from the Goetzels saying that they are safe in Amsterdam, and that was the last communication the family made with the school.

Anne Frank and her family had been German refugees in Amsterdam.

All of this, Corrie's music, Lilli's mysterious past, little brother Jo devastated by his mother's death, the hostages in West Berlin, the letters, spread across the floor in the music room charting the lives and potential deaths of the Jewish children decades before, all of this comes together in a whirl and a swirl that includes excerpts from "Hansel and Gretel" and Lill's final, unsurprising but utterly heartbreaking, revelation about what she left behind in Germany so many years before. Corrie learns just how close his own life is to those he found in the letters and to the children in the fairy tale. And even though you suspected this was coming, on some level, still all of it together is so beautifully written, so wonderfully wrought, that it reaches you in a far deeper way than you expected.

It's like that passage in the Holocaust Museum in DC. It is all very obvious there (of course) with the train car and the compressed passageways to give you the feeling of being forced into a tight space, and the recorded oral histories and the many displays of propaganda and artifacts. But then there is this light filled passage, a bridge actually, you walk across and the walls are lined with black and white photos of all sizes and they stretch up for several stories and they are all of different people in different settings. Happy, sad, group shots, class pics, just standard photos that any album from the 1930s or 40 would have. And then you read at the end that all of these people lived in the same village and all of them - all of them - were killed by the Nazis. The village is gone. And so you look back now, you study them more carefully, you consider them for all their sameness to you and yours and in that moment, for me anyway, the reality of the Holocaust hits home. The big number is almost too big to wrap your head around but this much smaller number, this tiny village with all those faces, is one you can see and feel. It is one that makes sense of the entire six million.

In KINDERGARTEN Corrie knows about the Holocaust just as he knows about the Magna Carta and the Battle of Hastings. These are things, he thinks, that every school child knows so they can be ready for test - the dates, the locations, the figures. But reading the letters in the school, getting to know the families through the children who made it out and those who kept trying and then vanished, is what makes the history real to him. Just like the sight of the small girl in the window of the West Berlin school is what terrorism is really all about, just like their mother, just like Hansel and Gretel.

Just like, of course, the story Lilli tells her grandsons in the book's final pages.

Peter Rushforth was a master storyteller, a truly amazing writer. KINDERGARTEN appeared on my radar years ago after a most favorable mention by Terri Windling. I'm so glad I finally read it. As a reader it is amazing but as a writer it is by far one of the best examples of our craft that I have ever come across. Life changing.

[Post pic: The kindergarten of Maria and Roman Ginzberg, class of 1930, Piorkow Trybunalski, Poland and photo entitled "Urban Hansel & Gretel" - the person who took it is now lost due to a dead link, sadly.]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ballad Spotting: Thomas the Rhymer

From: Feature Interview: Seanan McGuire

I studied folklore in college, and I’m still studying it now, as an adult. I expect to be studying folklore for the rest of my life. With that in mind, I truly believe that the current blurring of the borders between fantasy, horror, and romance are not representative of a mutation; they’re representative of a bunch of walls we didn’t really need finally coming down. The oldest stories we have were, at the time, what we would classify as “urban fantasy” today. Thomas the Rhymer?  His mother was dead when he was conceived, and he was carried to term in her coffin (horror). He fell in love with the Queen of Faerie, calling her “Queen of Heaven” and charming her heart (romance). So she took him to the fairy lands to dwell by her side (fantasy), even though they had to wade through red blood to the knee to get there (horror). Eventually, he chose to leave her to return to his own kind, and she cursed him with honesty (fantasy). In the end, he returned to her, and to Faerie, forevermore (romance). When this story was new, the settings it used were as familiar to the people who heard it as Chicago or Melbourne or San Francisco will be to modern readers of urban fantasy.
In some of the oldest forms of the Snow White/Rose Red story, there’s a third sister, Lily Fair. I like to say that urban fantasy writers are the Children of Lily Fair, the ones seeking the balance between Snow White’s fantasy and Rose Red’s horror. We’re the place where the lines drop away, and that’s a beautiful place to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ballad spotting: The Mermaid: Child Ballad 289
The Mermaid: Child Ballad 289: "

Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World

One of the side benefits of working on the SurLaLune fairy tale anthologies is that I am becoming more familiar with various Child Ballads. While I enjoy ballads, they hadn't inspired much research on my part until the last few years. (There just isn't the time to do everything that interests me!)

I previously posted about Clerk Colvill, Child Ballad 42, which I enjoyed as I edited Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World. The other ballad I included in the collected is Child 289 and I personally prefer it over Clerk Colvill. Most commonly known as The Mermaid, seven versions from Child appear in my book under various titles, including Greenland, The Seaman's Distress, and The Stormy Winds Did Blow. As I read it, Iwanted to listen to it, so I hunted some versions down on the internet.

Here's the text to Child 289B, which more closely resembles many of the modern recorded versions. Actually, most of them tend to be a hybrid of 289A, 289B and 289C. The ballad draws from the superstition that when sailors spy a mermaid, a shipwreck is imminent.

ONE Friday morn when we set sail,
Not very far from land,
We there did espy a fair pretty maid
With a comb and a glass in her hand, her hand, her hand,
With a comb and a glass in her hand.
While the raging seas did roar,
And the stormy winds did blow,
While we jolly sailor-boys were up into the top,
And the land-lubbers lying down below, below, below,
And the land-lubbers lying down below.

Then up starts the captain of our gallant ship,
And a brave young man was he:
“I’ve a wife and a child in fair Bristol town,
But a widow I fear she will be.”
For the raging seas, etc.

Then up starts the mate of our gallant ship,
And a bold young man was he:
“Oh! I have a wife in fair Portsmouth town,
But a widow I fear she will be.”
For the raging seas, etc.

Then up starts the cook of our gallant ship,
And a gruff old soul was he:
“Oh! I have a wife in fair Plymouth town,
But a widow I fear she will be.”

And then up spoke the little cabin-boy,
And a pretty little boy was he;
“Oh! I am more grievd for my daddy and my mammy
Than you for your wives all three.”

Then three times round went our gallant ship,
And three times round went she;
For the want of a life-boat they all went down,
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.

One of my favorite versions isn't a recording for purchase, but a homemade video on YouTube which I am embedding below. I enjoyed the simplicity of the tune and the variations it offered on the ballad itself. Here it is:

The Mermaid Song

As for recorded versions available for download, I preferred The Mermaid Song by the Floorbirds.

The Mermaid The Mermaid

Other versions you might prefer include The Mermaid by The Pirates of St. Piran and The Mermaid by Celtic Stew.