"Fairy tales are another kind of Bible, for those who know how to read them.” 'Red as Blood and White as Bone' in Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss
Theodora Goss is an award winning-author, a professor of literature and writing at both Boston University and the Stonecoast MFA program. Her debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017) and its sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) are wonderful and long-overdue adventures with a group of “girl monsters or monstrous young women,” who are the daughters of literature’s maddest of scientists. Her latest work, Snow White Learns Witchcraft, is a collection of fairy tale-themed poems and short stories, and it is glorious.
“Fairy tales fractured, reinvented, re-imagined, retold,” are how Jane Yolen describes perfectly this collection in her introduction. Some entries are well known stories, recast and imagined in ways that are unexpected. Others are stories that are completely new and yet feel well-worn and comfortable, like something known since childhood and rediscovered recently.
Goss has a wonderful knack of taking fairy tale archetypes (princes, princesses, wolves, evil queens and witches) and breathing life into them. The stories in these collections, which are inspired by and/or are retelling existing fairy tale tropes, are populated by people. People with perspectives, fears, strengths and weaknesses. There are no one-note characters here, and the pieces are all the richer for it. For example, in “Conversations with the Sea Witch," Goss allows readers to observe an aging Little Mermaid and Sea Witch as they meet for a daily conversation. Both are now elderly women (the Mermaid did not commit suicide) and have lived long lives that are composed of big events and daily routine. One has children and grandchildren, the other does not. And both have made difficult choices in their lives resulting in regrets and triumphs. They are two wise women grown, from the seed of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, who have lived their lives and formed a strong friendship in both their commonality and their differences.
To this are added two different reimaginings of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," a version of Rumpelstiltskin in which the miller’s daughter CAN weave wheat into gold (and has no need of the title character) and, in the title poem, Snow White ponders what to do with her life as she ages. Goss also tells stories with characters of her own creation cast in the fairy tale mold.
The result is a fascinating, heart-warming and bone-chilling collection of stories – whether in prose or poetry – of how women survive, and thrive, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Snow White Learns Witchcraft will leave you breathless, whether from anticipation, shock, wonder, or laughing out loud. It is the result of a master applying her skill to material that she loves. And it is a MUST read for those who are drawn to our ancient stories.