The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

If You Go Down To The Woods (Review: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz)

A Tale Dark And Grimm
Adam Gidwitz
Puffin 2011

"You're being foolish," Gretel told herself. "Rain can't talk."

No, of course it can't. The moon can eat children, and fingers can open doors, and people's heads can be put back on.
But rain? Talk? Don't be ridiculous.
Good thinking, Gretel dear. Good thinking.

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one - a brother and sister go wandering off into the darkest depths of the forest, ignoring all of their parents’ warnings. Stumbling across a gingerbread house they proceed to gorge themselves until its haggard resident returns. She proceeds to fatten up the siblings, preparing them for a feast, when they turn the tables and roast her alive in her own oven. The end. Or so your own parents may have had you believe...

Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark And Grimm is a loving homage to the stories of our childhood, taking the familiar tales and returning to them some of the grit and grime which have been slowly polished away in the centuries since their inception. Hansel and Gretel do indeed form the core of the story but the witch episode above is merely an early chapter in their grand epic. Weaving together eight separate tales, Gidwitz crafts his own cautionary fable about the dangers of the outside world, of trusting in strangers and, charmingly, of being a parent.

At the outset the parents are cast in the role of despicable villains, at least in the eyes of Hansel and Gretel. Due to a hideous curse (it’s a long story) their father, the king, reluctantly chops off their heads in order to save their lives. It’s alright, they get better. But old wounds have a tendency to reopen, especially when decapitation is involved, and as soon as the children learn what happened they set off into the great unknown on a quest for a more loving family.

Initially they seem to find success. New homes are waiting in every village with fathers in search of daughters, woodsmen in search of brides and witches in search of, erm, dinner. But behind every fairytale facade lurks rot and decay. Murderers enchant their victims before slaughtering them and imprisoning their souls in birdcages. Fatherly rejection turns brothers into sparrows, seeking refuge in far-off caves accessible through only the most gruesome of methods. And yes, there be dragons. Big ones.

Only a brave soul would attempt a retelling of such well-known tales but I’m pleased to say Adam Gidwitz carries out the task with aplomb. His knowledge of and love for the Brothers Grimm shines through in every tale, never allowing himself to become too cruel to his characters or to let them lose sight of the light at the end of their tunnel. Inevitably things do get a bit dark and grim sometimes - after all, these tales were originally more survival manuals than bedtime stories - but it’s all in the name of fun. He does take a perverse glee in dialling up the body count at times though, and bucketloads of blood are spilled throughout the proceedings.

Despite all the blood and horror, A Tale Dark And Grimm is held together in a light vein by Gidwitz’s fourth wall-breaking narration, infused with a wonderful sense of irony and knowing winks to the older reader. Regular urgings to rid the room of younger readers at tense moments only serve to heighten their interest and ensure a rapt audience. Children will all too readily identify with Hansel and Gretel, relating to their struggles against the grown-up world, while adults can chuckle away at the inside jokes and marvel at the masterful storytelling itself. Some of the light relief characters (the three ravens and their tangential conversations for example) come from the same comic stable as Pratchett and Python, nudging the story along while bringing us back down to earth after each adventure.

Despite expecting something aimed at a more mature level I found myself entranced by A Tale Dark And Grimm immediately and found myself cursing my classes for getting in the way of reading. The story just feels so genuine and steadfastly refuses to patronise children in the manner of the Disney-fied versions of the tales with which they are more familiar. Something about this honesty just makes it so endearing and yes, I admit it - I also loved the gore. So will your kids, I guarantee it.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  A Tale Dark and Grimm is available now.

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