Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Power of Fairy Tales

If the first book read in the New Year is any indication of the year to come, then I'm going to have a very good year! This children's novel explores the life of Cadence, a.k.a. Rapunzel, who is going through a particularly rough patch in her life.

Her father, a poet, has battled clinical depression his entire life, but now he has had a breakdown and is in the hospital. Rapunzel is stuck in her tower (Homework Club) where, under the watchful eye of the horrible Homework Witch, she must sit and do homework after school instead of going home, eating popcorn and hanging out with her dad. Her mom's job as a labor and delivery nurse makes for late and uncertain hours, so Rapunzel is on her own much more than she was when her dad was around.

School is not going very well either - even though Rapunzel discovers that she has tested very high on an IQ test, her grades do not reflect her supposed intelligence, and she is in no way interested it spending Fridays with the group of "gifted" children doing even more boring, irrelevant school work - especially not if she has to improve her grades in order to attend.

One day she returns home from school and discovers a piece of torn paper stuck between the cushion and side of her father's favorite chair, the place where he sits and writes his poetry. Rapunzel can't read the entire thing, just an intriguing section that says, "You are the secret to my success as a poet and a human being. Writing these letters every day has helped me keep my heart open, to be willing to live, to keep the darkness..." The word she reads prompt Rapunzel to write her own letters to the post office box in the address. She has no idea who she's writing to, but if the mysterious person was able to help her father, surely her or she can help her, too. She hopes. Her letters to the unknown owner of P.O. Box #5667 make up the novel.

Rapunzel sees the world in terms of fairytale tropes and themes, and her ability to see and use metaphors gives her a unique tool for dealing with the problems in her life. Her father is under an evil curse (which is as good a definition of clinical depression as any medical dictionary's). I was reminded of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood novels, which deal with fairy tale and mythological archetypes in a different but pertinent way, emphasizing the power such themes and images have in our lives. Rapunzel's mother, who is not very present in the pages, comments about Rapunzel's wild imagination, but it is not just imagination at work here, nor is Cadence suffering from delusions - she is using her clever mind to make some kind of sense of a chaotic, often painful world.

As an adult reading children's books, I am often struck by a duality I never experienced much when I was reading them as a child. As I read this one, I felt very closely connected to Rapunzel, of course, as the book's feisty, determined heroine. But I also felt such sympathy for her mother, who is dealing with the same difficult situation plus trying to somehow make things as easy as possible for her daughter. And as a parent, it is bittersweet to realize that we cannot protect our children from the pain and heartbreak of life. We make poor decisions for the best of reasons. We offer our support, but often they must find their own way of dealing with difficult problems. As Rapunzel's poet father says, "You must be willing to have your heart broken in order to live."

I thoroughly enjoyed this heartfelt, touching novel. Cadence's voice rings through, clear and believable, and I have a feeling the characters will be staying with me for a very long time.

Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

You can visit Sara Lewis Holmes at her blog, Read Write Believe, too!

Other blog reviews:
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Shelf Elf
Just Like the Nut


  1. I realize I am beginning to sound like a scratched record whenever I comment on your reviews, but here it goes again: this sounds absolutely wonderful and I must read it!

  2. Thanks, Nymeth - that's my favorite kind of comment, so keep it up! I find myself saying that to you all the time as well. :-) I'll be looking forward to hearing what you think of the book when you read it!

  3. What a lovely-sounding book. And so different! Beautiful review.

  4. Thanks, Heather! You are right - it certainly was not what I expected, especially judging from the cover. But it was a good surprise, you know?


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