In the title story of Kate Bernheimer’s latest collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, we encounter a universe where dolls talk and little girls receive trays of lollipops and jelly beans as nighttime snacks. A universe, it would seem, of childhood fantasy. And yet, as with the other stories in the collection, that fantasy world also throbs with cruelty and suffering. We encounter a scheming parent. Doll on doll violence. A daughter deprived of her toys ends up comforting her own mother in an eerie role reversal. “At least we still have each other,” the daughter says, with the hauntedness of a much older soul. The trappings of fairy tales ground each story in the collection, but these familiar nods to “once upon a time” ultimately split at their seams, thrusting readers into the unknown, reminding us of the paper-thin line between chaos and control.
The name Kate Bernheimer has, in recent years, become synonymous with “fairy tale.” Her rap sheet includes the short story collection, Horse, Flower, Bird, in addition to a trio of novels following the lives of three sisters—the latest being The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold—and even several award-winning children’s books. She has also edited numerous anthologies, including the best-selling collection, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, in which a diverse group of authors reimagine classic folklore. To top it off, she founded the literary journal, The Fairy Tale Review.
One might call Bernheimer a bit of a fairy tale activist. In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,”featured in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, she notes their “critical underappreciation”—both with respect to the role they play in our literary tradition and the insights they might offer contemporary fiction writers—owing in part to their long standing affiliation with women and children. But to ignore fairy tales, according to Bernheimer, is to ignore an artistic treasure trove. “Fairy tales are the skeletons of story,” she writes. “Reading them often provides and uneasy sensation—a gnawing familiarity—that comforting yet supernatural awareness of living inside a story.” Their governing form, which usually emphasizes elements of abstraction, flat characters, and intuitive logic, flies in the face of Conventional Fiction Workshop Wisdom. And yet, by forgoing the usual character-driven, show-don’t-tell modus operandi, fairy tales can tap into narratives that feel both familiar and wildly innovative. That dissonance is partly what makes How A Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales so seductive. As readers, one of the reasons we’re able to inhabit Bernheimer’s stories is because, as fairy tales, they’re not already crowded by other souls. Or perhaps, as Bernheimer suggests in her essay, because the fairy tale tradition is already embedded inside us.
How A Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales comprises nine stories total, interspliced with strange, though endearing illustrations, and riddle-like prose poems. Although the stories range in focus—from the life of an agoraphobic librarian to that of a pajama-wearing dinosaur—they are consistent in style: tight, sparse prose, humming with self-awareness. The stories in the collection not only take the form of fairy tales, fairy tales play a role in the stories themselves. For instance, in “The Girl with the Talking Shadow,” our narrator, Cathy, describes her courtship with a boy named Plute, saying: “He’d ask what I was reading and I’d show him my myth and fairy-tale books. He even liked me to read them to him.” Cathy’s penchant for fairy tales turns out to be more than a passing hobby: her literary taste ultimately gets her placed in a half-way home, as if to suggest that readers second guess their own consumption of Bernheimer’s collection. That said, the self-awareness in the prose also turns humorous at times. Rather than falling into romantic tropes, for instance, Cathy characterizes her relationship with Plute by saying, “I know this all sounds mysterious and strange, but it wasn’t. He was just a guy and I was just a girl. It was a nice sort of friendship, for rejects.”
One of the reasons this collection feels so eerie is that its characters readily accept the magic of their surrounding world. What’s more, Bernheimer’s mothers and dinosaurs and little girls move through that world with cool, clear-headed logic. When a human-sized talking doll shows up at a woman’s house, she places that doll by the fire so that is can unthaw, rather than running around screaming. In “Babes in the Woods,” the second wife of a widower decides to starve her husband’s children. An atrocity, certainly—and yet this choice is described with such acute rationality, that a reader might find herself actually empathizing with the woman. “Children had so many needs and they were so vulnerable. It made her nervous and caused her to drink,” reports our steady, anonymous narrator, “before she knew it, she began depriving the children of food. She knew this was wrong, but she thought maybe then they would leave on their own—find another home where they would be better fed and have a good mother.”
It’s in “Babes in the Woods,” also, that we encounter a trio of girls who end up chain-smoking pastel cigars in the wake of their abduction. For a collection of stories with little superfluous description, there is an interesting emphasis on color, especially pink. We encounter, over the course the collection: a pink horse, pink cheeks, and “a dessert called the Pink Lady Slipper.” Pink is, of course, the color traditionally bestowed on baby girls. A soft, gentle color. And yet, in the context of Bernheimer’s stories, pink often acts as a signifier of foreboding and pain. The pink horse, for instance, becomes a reminder of a child’s death. Even the Pink Lady Slipper dessert earns a macabre connotation, when the girls imagine they are eating bloodied fingers.
Like fairy tales, the color pink is often relegated to nurseries. However, as Bernheimer so effectively demonstrates in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, to dismiss them is a mistake. Fairy tales are composites—unnerving blends of fantasy and rationality—and as such, the stories they govern may lure you into their candied constructions, only to eat you alive.
How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, by Kate Bernhemier. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, forthcoming. 167 pages. $15.95, paper.
Allegra Hyde’s stories and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Missouri Review, Southwest Review, Passages North, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She serves as prose editor for Hayden’s Ferry Reviewand curates similes at allegrahyde.com.