How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

By Kate Bernheimer


Coffee House Press
August 2014

Reviewed by Michael Jacoby


In Kate Bernheimer's newest collection of stories, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, readers will find the following: a girl who dies when a sea urchin blooms, pink cigars, aging dinosaurs, talking dolls, librarians, and of course, mothers and daughters. In these nine stories, Bernheimer yet again flexes her fantastical crafting muscles and shows returning readers that, despite this being her fifth major fairy tale work, she isn't slowing down and has no interest in weaning herself, or the reader, from fairy tales.

The collection begins with the tale of an aging dinosaur whose story is both dark and whimsical and who serves as a gateway into Bernheimer's world. Ironically, his simple yet strange story reminds readers that they're leaving (what they believe to be) traditional storytelling behind, though with this collection they'll be returning to what Bernheimer considers the most traditional storytelling form of all. This focus becomes clear early on when the reader finds the epigraph is a quote from Walter Benjamin: "The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest."

These fairy tales feel familiar because, as Bernheimer would argue, we are programmed to understand them. Fairy tales are the first stories we're told when we enter this world and Bernheimer finds their importance does not cease as we age and move on to other forms. With this muscle memory approach to fairy tales, readers will quickly adapt to the collection's bizarre logical ladders and mystical elements.

Bernheimer's fairy tale form depends upon two elements: normalized magic and flat characters. Normalized magic is when characters immediately accept magical phenomenon as reality. It serves as a cornerstone of a true fairy tale, according to Bernheimer's own essay titled "Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale." For example, in Peter Pan, Wendy, Michael, and John don't need much time to accept that flying immortal boys with fairies are real. In Bernheimer's collection, a mother does not blink when a human size doll knocks on her door to escape the cold. These breaks from reality in How a Mother work similarly to other breaks in Bernheimer's previous collections — they occasionally straddle the line of reality so well that we begin to doubt the character's sanity, which makes us vulnerable to the character's whims.

The other key to these fairy tales is that the characters are nearly always flat. The effect of flat characters here is that we do not become overly attached to them and instead pay closer attention to the story and language. A character's actions and the beats of the story are not muddied by concerns for the character's fate. For example, in the story "Oh Jolly Playmate!" one character, named only S—, and identified only as a blond girl who lived in a house of stone, dies. The description reads, "Many years later, S— died. She thought no one had helped her and so she leapt from a window." S—'s flatness means we do not need to pause and mourn her. Instead, we can fall deeper into the story and experience the strange strides that follow.

In this way, Bernheimer is able to focus on the act of storytelling, which often appears explicitly in the stories as a thematic thread, woven through the different characters' lives. The emphasis on storytelling persistently pops up throughout the collection, sometimes in small moments and sometimes in major ways. One of the first lines in "The Old Dinosaur" is "The old dinosaur was alone and forsaken. He was sad at heart—yes, that is the saying." Here, on the first page of the collection, readers see a narrator turning the gears of speech to produce the most suitable phrase for the story being told. In the middle of the story Bernheimer writes, "He was in no other way striking—he was pretty much an ordinary dinosaur guy." This informality allows the reader to feel comfortable in the story and endears us to this narrator, allowing for more play on the page than may otherwise be accepted. The story ends, "He was the last dinosaur. My story is done," reflecting Bernheimer's interest in story form, a persistent interest throughout the collection.

This interest plays out by turning in circles the concept of beginnings and ends. The cycle itself breathes life through the motif of mothers and daughters in the collection. They care for and betray one another. They are the other's beginning and end. Their love for one another, their desire to take care of each other and their failure to properly do so—these are the moments that, although told through flat characters, still work to steel the reader.

The stories in this collection sustain an even pace. They feel light, and the language, if light and playful, hides darker themes that sink in gradually. I read the collection nearly in one sitting and in fact, the collection as a whole reads well in such a way, with images reappearing in different stories and consistent themes that twist and grow as the reader progresses. For example, in "Pink Horse Tale," a mother has trouble holding onto her daughters, one of whom is in love with a pink horse. The story takes a dark turn and one of its final lines is, "Of course, now I do nothing but drink Chelada all day, haunted by pink." The color pink returns in "Oh Jolly Playmate!" which is about two girls who are best friends. They are obsessed with pink, drinking pink dyed water and ice cream stained by Red Hots: "The girls fed each other. Pink dripped down their throats." In this story, pink connotes both connection and consumption, in a literal dietary sense and in a symbolically sexual way. Pink continues to appear in unexpected places—in the rose color of a cigar and on the blushing cheeks of a boy. Bernheimer's clever use of repetition has a disorienting effect which, when paired with her control over her imagination and comprehension of the fairy tale form, results in a collection containing stories worth reading and rereading.