The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold

By Kate Bernheimer

March 2011
128 pages


Reviewed by Jena Salon


I have an uneasy relationship with fairytales. I find them emotionally satisfying and intellectually fascinating, and maybe because I love the twisted complexities of the original tales so much, I abhor their Disneyfication. So while I spend a good deal of time reading the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to my daughter, I know that by refusing to expose her to the watered-down, princess-heavy cartoon versions I am denying her not only a common cultural connection with her peers, but also—since I certainly saw Disney's Snow White and Cinderella growing up—a common understanding with me. The fact that I also saw Shelly Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre—a more faithful, live action rendering of the tales—and let my daughter watch it, is hardly the point. No one else she knows is watching it.

What I love about the Complete Tales of the Gold sisters is that Kate Bernheimer speaks exactly to this dilemma. She shows us the complexity and richness of the fairy/folk traditions. She reminds us that we are supposed to be uncomfortable with these tales, that there is no single way to interpret them, and that true engagement comes precisely from the act of questioning them.

The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold is the final book in a series about the Gold sisters, Merry, Ketzia and Lucy. In each of the books, Bernheimer has taken a handful of folktales (mainly Yiddish, German and Russian) and rewritten them—reworked them really—and then strung them together into novels about young girls growing up in the suburbs. Sometimes there are chapters that seem to be retellings of old tales with slight changes; some seem to be new narratives which simply include references to these tales; a handful of chapters are faithfully reprinted versions of the stories. The result is a removed, seemingly all-knowing narrator (even when the chapters shift into first person) with all of our modern-day assumptions, obsessions and infatuations. What was once common in the time the original stories were written has been made to seem "other" through tone, like the rabbit fur coat that is "fur sewn in the shape of women's jackets." When modern possessions are integrated into the story—like the "hot pink sleeping bag you closed with a pearl button" Lucy makes for her doll—it can be startling. We are reminded that this is modern times, not once upon a time or, rather, that once upon a time was once someone's modern-day.

Bernheimer's project began well before Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but she was already aware of the ways in which as a culture we are obsessed with fairytales—specifically princess tales—and how they influence our children. And while the first two books were more about sex and insanity, this third book speaks more directly to the Princess Phenomenon and our debate as to whether or not it's healthy for our girls to grow up expecting their princes to come. Lucy is the closest of her sisters to these Disneyfied princesses. She is "the most beautiful—and the easiest of the three sisters to like. She was never angry or sad" and she lives happily in the forest with birds and mice. But she is also the least interesting of the sisters (as a person, not as a book) the least willful. She "enjoyed activities such as brushing her flaxen hair." Bernheimer reminds us that only a small percentage of fairytales feature princesses, and fewer still have been adapted by Disney. In most of these tales, even when girls get married—in whichever version of the story you read—most times, it's not as a princess swept off her feet.

As an animator at a movie company Lucy is fighting against, "Two studies [that] had received unusual attention on the national evening news: one proposed reading fairy tales to children constituted a form of abuse; another that argued fairytales caused women to be attracted to madmen." While Bernheimer may not love the Disney Princesses, she loves these stories, and this is why she raises question about our culture's—any culture's—use of these stories as morality tales, ways to teach children about the world, ways we tell ourselves about the world. We are up in arms that people are creating their self-images from these tales, but that's only true if we focus on the part when the girl gets the prince. Other than that do people really worry about their influence? Certainly not every dirty little girl who pretends to talk to animals can become a princess simply by being happy with her rodent friends. In fact, Lucy loses her job when she begins to dress in rags and allow animals in her hair. Then there is the subtle weaving-in of the Passover story with Lucy's thoughts about Hansel and Gretel, the passing references throughout to The Little House on the Prairie and All-of-a-Kind-Family. These are all stories, Bernheimer is saying. So few people now believe that the Bible's stories are one hundred percent true, in fact many say they are completely false. The happy middle many of us have settled on is that they are "somewhat based on historical events". Bernheimer drags us through her questioning, encourages it in us, and yet holds fairy stories next to the Biblical ones not to disparage the Bible, I don't think, but to show us that these stories are of great importance, whatever your objection to them. The inclusion of the more modern Little House and All-of-a Kind stories, for me, underscores the importance of common references and stories, whatever their source.

These are tales about dissociation, about the distance we put between ourselves and the world as we grow, always waiting to become who and what we think we ought to be. There is a joy, then, in these fairy stories which are meant for children. As Lucy says, "When I was a child, the world seemed so lifelike to me."