Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
Little, Brown & Company, 2011 (Currently Available)
Genre: Fairytale Retelling
Face Value: I’m kind of into it. It’s creepy, and sets the right tone, and I like the witches face appearing in the trees all people-kissing-or-a-vase-style. It makes it clear that this book is set in the same world as Pearce’s first book, Sisters Red, while still clearly indicating a different story.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes. It really does. I wasn’t sure for awhile. I knew I was going to like Gretchen, but I wasn’t sure if she was going to be a Slatebreaker. But she absolutely becomes one over the course of the book. Her journey into someone who can protect herself and others instead of seeking protection is well realized.
Who would we give it to? There’s a big demand for retold fairy tales. The world that Jackson Pearce has created in both Sisters Red and Sweetly is dark, and creates its own specific mythology while drawing upon recognizable fairy tale elements.
Review: What I’m not going to do in this review is talk about the chaos/controversy surrounding Bitch Magazine’s feminist books list and Sisters Red last year. It’s been talked to death, we think, and we’re not interested in dragging out an old conversation. If you missed this, you can read a thoughtful roundup here: Suffice it to say – I personally liked Sisters Red and while I can absolutely understand where people’s problems with it came from I didn’t read the same things into those scenes. But I was intrigued by the world that Pearce created in that book and had been excited to see what she did with Hansel and Gretel.
One of the things that I particularly like is the stories that she’s choosing to adapt here. Essentially, I like that these are fairy tale adaptations that seem to be consciously avoiding princesses. For every dozen Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast retellings I’ve read, I can only think of two Hansel & Gretels offhand.
What seems to be interesting to Jackson Pearce about these stories (and what’s interesting to me, as a reader) is that these are retellings of stories about victims in a way that places the victim back into a position of power. Hansel and Gretel are seduced by the witch’s magical house, trapped against their will. Notably, this is one of the few fairy tales that features a young female hero – no prince or woodsman comes to their rescue and Gretel is the instrument of the children’s survival. Likewise, in Sweetly, Gretchen has to learn how to save herself.
In this version of the story, Hansel and Gretel are Ansel and Gretchen, and they aren’t children but young adults. When they were kids, their sister (Gretchen’s twin) disappeared in the woods. Something caught her but they’ve never known exactly what happened. Gretchen’s always been convinced it was a witch. Their mother died not long after their sister’s disappearance and no one in the family was ever the same. When Gretchen turns eighteen, their stepmother turns them out into the world. Gretchen explains:
“She’s never liked us, after all, especially me – she didn’t like the way my father loved me, didn’t like the fact that I perfectly matched the daughter she’d never met but my father ached for, the way I looked just like his dead wife when she’d been a teenager. She said she just couldn’t afford to keep us on anymore and, with me having just turned eighteen and Ansel nineteen, was no longer obligated to.
Obligated. We were obligations left behind by a father eaten alive by mourning, remnants of a shattered family.”
Their car breaks down and the siblings find themselves in the small town of Live Oak, staying with and working for Sophia, who runs a candy shop. She’s beautiful and entrancing, but the rest of the town is suspicious of her, with good reason. She holds a chocolate festival each year, after which some of the town’s young women disappear, never to be heard from again. Sophia is incredibly kind to the siblings, who are both entranced by her. But Gretchen sees a hidden sadness and secrets behind her facade, and starts to figure out what is really happening in the town.
It’s a well crafted story, and the way the horrifying Fenris of Sisters Red work their way into this story was creepy and satisfying. But what made the book Slatebreaking, for me as a reader, was seeing Gretchen’s journey, from victim into protector. The loss of her twin, and the resulting fear of the unknown, has defined her entire life.
When Gretchen meets Samuel, another outsider who has suffered his own losses, something changes. Yes, there’s romance that we see coming a mile away, but there’s more than that. Through Samuel, and through her time in Live Oak she starts to find ways to feel strong and safe – ways that come not from the protection of others but from her own strength.
“Images flash back to me: Samuel shooting, Samuel taking down the wolf with a bullet. He didn’t run from the monster – he walked up to it. And shot it. That’s all it took to destroy everything I’ve been afraid of for twelve years, everything that could make me disappear.
I’ve never fired a gun before – never even considered it – but what if I could? I lean over to look with awe at the gun mounted over the fireplace mantel. I wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore. I wouldn’t have to be afraid of anything ever again.”
I found this journey really plausible. It’s not just that she learns how to fire a gun/protect herself and then feels immediately and magically safe. It’s that she finds something that makes her feel like she’s taking charge of her own experiences. When she tells Samuel that “I don’t want to wait for the wolves to come after me or anyone else in Live Oak…and I don’t want to just protect myself while other girls get chased and killed,” it demonstrates a real change. Gone is the girl who hides in books to keep from engaging in potential dangers. She becomes stronger by not only knowing what the danger is, but by being able to face it head on, and stop it. By the end of the book, she no longer thinks it would be easier to just vanish, like her sister did. Instead she is imprinting her name on the world.
Reviewed from library copy.