August 16, 2005

Agile Shifting: The Work of Gregory Maguire

I am on a Gregory Maguire kick. Ever since the triumphant West Coast opening of Wicked, the Broadway musical based on his novel, I've wanted to find out all I can about this New Yorker who was raised by nuns, founded Children's Literature New England, Inc. and has zipped all over the world, ingraining his soul with the patina of cultures that enrich his work. I've got Wicked on hold from the library (-- seems like everyone had the same idea I did of reading it before seeing the musical) -- but I've gathered a few of Maguire's other available books.

Though he is a big player on the East Coast within children's lit, I've found that many of Maguire's books aren't really kidlit or YA. He's written quite a few board books for small children, middle grade rhyming stories, and moody coming-of-age adolescent pieces, but he also writes fairytales. Essentially, fairytale expansions are associated with children's work, but the Benicia Public Library shelves Maguire's work as adult reading, and with the depths and complexities of the characters, this is exactly, I believe, what the author intended: fairytales as adult fare. I found
Mirror, Mirror to be a provocative and deeply psychological novel more about familial dysfunction than anything the Grimms may have intended, and definitely not kid stuff.

The premise of this novel is, of course, a retooling of the Snow White classic. The addition of lush Italian countryside, a 16th century cast including a lascivious cook and a shambling, gluttonous priest give depth to Bianca De Nevada, a protected child, who is never allowed the boundaries of her family's property. A well connected acquaintance of her father's, Cesare Borgia is the son of a Spanish pope is one of the most powerful and ruthless mercenaries of the 16th century. His sister, Lucrezia is a decadent creature, and travels with her brother in order to assist him in persuading Bianca's father to fulfill his greatest wish, to obtain for him "a sprig of the Tree of Knowledge, out of the very orchard from which our kind has sprung." The branch is housed in a faraway monastery, and Vicente De Nevada is to steal it, while leaving his daughter, house and lands in the care of Lucrezia, who agrees to stand as guardian.

Stealing from a monastery means death... but refusing a warlord his whim is death of a more instantaneous kind. Vicente De Nevada reluctantly agrees, and thus we rediscover the familiar tenents of the original Grimm narrative - the absent father, depraved female caretaker, the magicked mirror, the poisoned apple, the helpless hunter, and the crew of dwarves. The basics of the story are unchanged, but Maguire interweaves his own meanings.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is written tightly and with attention to detail. The tale of Cinderella is recast in 17th century Holland, with tulips and windmills. The theme of extreme beauty begetting extreme privation unfolds with an Englishwoman and her two children, one plain and one retarded, fleeing their home and a debtors prison, and going to Holland for succor. With her mother playing a sob story to attract the attention of every merchant in Haarlem with the intent of either selling her plain daughter, Iris, or begging them a subsistence on her own skills, Iris catches the fancy of an artist, then the attention of a wealthy man who secures Iris a position in his family teaching English to his daughter, Clara. Iris' clever and ambitious mother takes over as chatelaine of the household. A change in fortune makes Iris and Clara stepsisters, and the darkness Iris finds in her mother disturbs her. Are the memories she has of her mother being driven out of England true? Why does it so disturb her when the Master's apprentice calls her a witch? Are only the beautiful guaranteed a 'happily ever after?'

...more on Maguire's YA stuff in a bit...

1 comment:

a. fortis said...

Now I can't wait to read some of these others. I loved Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and found it a lot more convincing in its depiction of the 17th century Holland setting and the cranky virtuoso artist than some of the other "true-story-of-Vermeer," girl-with-a-pearl-earring -type books that periodically come out, none of which have really piqued my interest since reading Maguire's take on the subject.