Friday, February 10, 2012

Just Ella

Margaret Peterson Haddix's Just Ella is a novel that reveals what happens after Cinderella's supposed "happily ever after" and how it wasn't quite so picture perfect after all. This Cinderella goes from being imprisoned by her stepmother to being virtually imprisoned by the rules and expectations of the Castle, and being engaged to a Prince she realizes she doensn't love, and doesn't love her. Haddix has some interesting things to say about beauty and ugliness, court life, and what happiness and love really are.

I've done a little reading on actual court life and that's one of those things where the truth really is stranger than fiction. One little example: there was a page in Marie Antoinette's court whose job it was to carry her train around. Yet when Antoinette moved from one section of the palace to another, that page had to relinquish the job to another. The rules and restrictions are unreal and often seemingly pointless. That said, I wonder how much research went into this book, because a lot of it didn't necessarily seem believable to me. Royalty and court life were complicated and are hard for modern Americans like myself to understand, but it's painted as basically evil in this book, whereas the truth is more complex than "people who practice intricate etiquette are shallow".

Still, I can imagine myself being shocked and fascinated if I were younger and this was one of my first exposures to challenging the notions of traditional fairy tales. I would definitely recommend this to young adults, although by now I've read enough modern versions of fairy tales that our post-Victorian ideals have become almost just as predictable as the Victorian passive beauty. This Ella is a bookworm! Athletic tomboy! She doesn't sit around and let people dictate life to her, but takes action! Not that these are bad things, but they're still a stereotype. I've alluded to this before, but I spent years of my childhood/adolescence trying to be a tomboy because I wanted to be like heroines in the fantasy books I read, only to discover later that I'm a total girly girl, the kind I used to scorn (although ironically have actually become more athlectic after this revelation of mine). And has anyone ever come across a book where the main character hates books? I'm pretty sure I never have...

Not to bash the book, it was an entertaining and quick read, so I'll let the words speak for themselves:
*"It didn't seem fair that I was now a princess and she would always be a servant, just because I looked a little prettier than her."

*"I felt a surge of exhilaration just thinking about that night [at the ball]...because I'd made something happen. I'd done something everybody had told me I couldn't. I'd changed my life all by myself. Having a fairy godmother would have ruined everything" (the book explains what "really" happened as well as how the rumors of the fairy godmother started, which I enjoyed. Speaking of research, I don't know if Haddix is familiar with the fairy tale other than the Disney version, because she references things in the rumors that are only found in Disney-being friends with the mice, and mice changing to horses while the horse is changed into something else-not in Perrault. But that may have been intentional, linking Disney with silly rumors)
*This Cinderella talks back to her stepmother all the time-"you are older than me. You have more power than me. But you are not my many times do I have to tell you that?" yet I can't help wondering why she has the courage to sass her stepmother, yet never tried just refusing to do any work. They'd have to make their own food eventually.

Black and white illustrations by George Cruikshanks

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