Snow White, or Learning to Love Your Stepmother, Part II

Rocky walked through the forest all night. It was dark, close, and scary. Even Rocky, who wasn’t afraid of much, soon began to get unnerved by the shadows and the silence. She had walked as far as she could when she came upon a little house. It was neat and snug, and it sat there in the middle of a small clearing, just as though a giant hand had set it down like a toy.
Rocky didn’t care if anyone was inside; she wanted to get out of the trees for a while. She cracked open the little door and sneaked inside.
She had just closed the door when she heard such a racket that she nearly wanted to run. The snoring, sighing, and belching that filled the little house made rocky wonder if she had wandered into a den of bears. But no. With the light of dawn through the windows, Rocky saw seven beds lined up against the wall, and in each bed was a form snoring and blowing and muttering.
Rocky hid herself as best she could. It wasn’t long before one of the figures got up and began tending the fire in the stove. Soon the little house was filled with the smells of fresh coffee and oatmeal porridge flavoured with cinnamon. Rocky’s stomach growled.
When Rocky peeped out from behind the barrel where she hid, she could see that all the little men were now sitting around the table, slurping coffee and shoveling in porridge. They were dwarfs, with shaggy hair and long beards.
“Brothers,” said one of the dwarfs. “I think an animal has broken into our house.”
The others looked at him and nodded. “Indeed,” said another.
“Is it a monster?” said a third.
“Or a forest demon?” said a fourth.
“Or perhaps,” said the first, “it is a naughty princess who has run away from the castle.”
“Surely not,” cried the others.
Rocky sighed. “All right,” she said, coming out from behind the barrel. “I’m right here.”
The dwarfs all gave a convincing jump. “The monster!” cried one. “The demon!” cried another.
“I’m sorry I sneaked into your house,” said Rocky, with all of the dignity of a small princess. “But could I please have some breakfast? I’ve been wandering around the forest all night.”
Laughing, the dwarfs made room for her at the table. Soon Rocky had a steaming bowl of oatmeal, a hot scone, and a mug of coffee. It was delicious.
The dwarfs of course wanted to know her story, but they waited until Rocky had eaten her fill. Then she told them about the queen.
“A bad business,” said one, shaking his shaggy head.
“You can stay here with us,” said another, “at least until you get this all sorted out.” The other dwarfs nodded.
“I’m never going back,” said Rocky, now near to tears. But it had been a long night, and she was, after all, only seven.
One of the dwarfs made her a bed in the corner, and soon Rocky was tucked up and falling asleep. The dwarfs got ready for their day in the mines, but one agreed to stay behind—to mind the Princess. He got his knitting, and sat on a chair in the morning sun, while Rocky slept.
Meanwhile, the night before, the huntsman had gone to see the old cook. But even before he came storming into the kitchen, the whole castle already knew the princess had run away. “Do you know what that woman asked me?” thundered the huntsman, as soon as he stood before the cook.
Everyone knew who that woman was. “I can guess,” said the old cook, while the under cooks and the serving lads and lasses stopped to listen.
The huntsman told his tale. “And now the princess has run off into the forest. What are we to do?”
The old cook looked thoughtful. “First,” she said, “you needn’t worry about the princess. She’ll be safe. She’ll find her way to the house of the Seven Dwarfs. You can check on her in the morning, if you like. I will deal with the Queen tomorrow.”
The next morning, the huntsman left for the forest, and soon enough he came to the house of the dwarfs. It wasn’t that far from the castle. Rocky had been going in rather a circle the night before. The huntsman found one of the dwarfs seated on a chair, his knitting needles clicking and flashing in the sun.
“Come for your princess?” asked the dwarf, glancing up at the huntsman. “She’s fast asleep inside. Help yourself to coffee.”
The huntsman knew the dwarfs well. He was relieved, to say the least. He had a quick look at the sleeping princess, and then he took another chair and a cup of coffee and joined the dwarf outside.
Back at the castle, everyone knew what had happened the night before. There was some angry muttering, but the old cook said that she would take care of the Queen. The cook was a wise woman, and she had a little magic of her own. Taking a small looking glass from her pocket, she peered into its murky depths. She spoke to it. It flashed once and went dim again. With a little smile, the old cook tucked the mirror back into her pocket, and then she went to check the bread that had just come out of the ovens.
It was the Queen’s custom to sleep late. The King had left early with a hunting party, and the morning was well under way when suddenly the whole castle heard a shriek.
“The Queen’s awake,” said the old cook.
The shriek was soon follow by another, and soon a wailing and blubbering queen came down the steps. “My mirrors!” she screamed. “What has happened to my mirrors? They’re all broken!”
It was true. Every mirror in the castle was covered with a spider web of cracks, and they were all as dull as the winter sky.
The old cook let it go on for a while, and then she went to look for the Queen. The woman was slumped on a chair in the Great Hall. The cook stood before the Queen. “Your Highness,” she said, ”you have done an unconscionable thing.”
The Queen looked up at the cook through her tears. She wasn’t especially good at listening to others, but something in the cook’s tone made her pay attention.
“What have I done,” she sobbed. “Some wicked person has broken all of my mirrors.”
“You’ve only got what you deserved,” said the Cook, “after what you tried to do to the Princess.”
“The Princess,” said the Queen. And since she didn’t have a mirror to distract her, the Queen had to think for a moment.
“Yes, the Princess. You should be ashamed of yourself. What sort of queen asks the Royal Huntsman to dispose of a little girl?”
The Queen wasn’t a bad sort, really. She was vane, and she read too many fairy tales, but she didn’t actually mean Rocky any harm.
“If you do the right thing,” said the old Cook, “maybe—just maybe—one or two of these mirrors will start working again.”
The Queen sniffed. “If you mean,” she said, with another sniff, “that I should apologize, then I suppose I could. Then I can have my mirrors back?” She looked hopefully up at the cook.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” said the Cook, glowering down.
“Very well! I suppose I haven’t been a good stepmother, so I’ll do my best to be a better one to dear little Snow White.”
“And what?” cried the Queen.
“It will be hard acting like a stepmother if all you’re doing is looking in the mirror.”
“I’ll keep my mirrors in my room,” sulked the queen.
The old cook could see she wasn’t going to get much better than that, so she let it be. She called for a footman, who escorted the Queen into the forest and to the house of the Seven Dwarfs. There, in front of all the dwarfs, the huntsman, and the footman, the Queen apologized to Rocky.
Rocky stood awhile, and then she said. “You should know that it was me hiding behind your mirror yesterday. It wasn’t your mirror talking. It was me. I wanted to play a trick on you. I’m sorry, too.”
The dwarfs and the two men held their breaths as they watched the little Princess and the tall Queen, who looked hard at one another.
“Well,” said the Queen, finally, “if you promise not to do anything of the sort again, I will do my best as your stepmother.”
Rocky gave a reluctant grin. “All right,” she said, and taking her stepmother’s hand, she led her back to the castle.
There was a great feast that night, and the seven dwarfs were invited to stay at the castle. The King smiled absently as he greeted everyone, but he wasn’t sure what had happened that day. And since finding out would have meant taking an interest, he didn’t bother.
Rocky and her stepmother sat side by side at the great table, while the seven dwarfs drank and made merry around them. “We’ll have to do something about your father, next,” said the Queen.
And Rocky nodded her head. “Good idea,” she said.

Snow White, or Learning to Love Your Stepmother, Part I

Once upon a time, there was a queen who sat sowing by a window. She longed for a child. As she looked out over the snowy landscape, she saw a raven. She started, and pricked her finger with the needle, so a drop of blood fell upon the sill.
She thought, if I had a child whose skin was white as snow, whose lips were as red as blood, and whose hair was as black as a raven’s wing, then I would call her Snow White.
She did have a child, but she didn’t live to watch her daughter grow up. In memory of his wife, the King named the child Snow White. It was a ridiculous name, because the child’s hair was red as red, and she had so many freckles it was hard to tell one from another.
But the King didn’t care, and he went off to mourn his dead wife. The only trouble with mourning someone for years and years—as kings in fairy tales so often do—is that they miss the stuff going on right under their noses, as this king did. He took hardly any notice of Snow white, until one day he brought home a new wife.
As for the child, she hated the name Snow White, and she insisted that all of the servants call her Rocky. No one ever knew exactly why Snow White insisted on her nick name, but neither was anyone willing to argue with her. If they did, Rocky would fly into a temper and stamp her feet.
Rocky wasn’t a bad child, but she did get her way more than she should have. And even if she was loud, she eventually saw the justice in every situation. The old cook, who was like a second mother to the princess, and the only person rocky ever heeded, did her best to raise the child and teach her right from wrong.
So it went until the King brought home his new wife. When the royal coach rolled up to the front gate, the whole castle held its breath.  They all waited to see if Rocky would fly into a temper. But as the King and the new Queen came up the steps and entered the Great Hall, Rocky just watched, a strange expression on her face.
Rocky was just seven years-old, and she didn’t know much about kings and queens and marriage, but she knew that she had already lost her mother, and now  she was losing her father for the second time.
The new queen settled into the castle, and soon she was bossing everyone around and making herself unpopular with the servants. She didn’t like her food, she complained about the drafty castle; the fires were too hot or too low, and Rocky, no matter what, was always in the way. Rocky felt a little sorry for herself, but it didn’t last.
The worst of it was the mirrors. The Queen placed them at strategic points all over the castle, and she was always checking her reflection. No matter what she did, the Queen always had one eye on a mirror, checking to see that she was at her best.
It was weird. It’s like she’s her own audience, thought Rocky.
One day,thinking to play a trick on her stepmother, rocky let herself into the Queen’s apartments. She sneaked over to the tall mirror, and wondered if she could do something to the mirror so the Queen would look fat. One of the coachman had told rocky about a fair in the town where you could stand in front of a mirror that made you look tall and thin or short and wide. Just then, the handle of the door clicked, and rocky knew it was time to hide. Quick as a flash, she jumped behind the mirror and waited.
The Queen swept into her apartments, checking her entrance in one of the wall mirrors. She spent a long time at her bureau touching up her makeup and peering at the effect. She had a smaller mirror for this purpose. Each time Rocky peeped from behind the tall mirror in the corner, the Queen was dabbing at another part of her face.
Finally, the Queen wandered languidly over to the mirror where Rocky hid. “Oh, mirror,” said the Queen. “If you could only tell me I’m the fairest in all the land, then I would at least hear what I know to be true.”
Rocky had an idea. She caught up a tall, glass vase that lay discarded near the mirror. “Oh queen,” she said, speaking into the tall vase. It made her voice sound spooky and weird. “You are the fairest in all the land, save for the lovely Snow White.”
This time, when she peeped out from behind the glass, the queen was glaring at the mirror. “Snow White!” she nearly shrieked. “How can that ragged child even compare to me? Perish the thought.”
The Queen began pacing up and down her room. This is ridiculous,” she said to herself. “I must do something.” And she struck a pose in the centre of the room. Then she sent for the royal huntsman.
Now, the royal huntsman was Rocky’s friend. They had spent many an hour together, making s’mores over the great fire in the kitchen, while the huntsman told her stories about his adventures in the forest. When he arrived at the Queen’s apartments, rocky thought he looked a little confused.
“Huntsman,” cried the Queen, “I have a job for you.”
“Yes, my lady,” said the huntsman, bowing his head.
“I want you to take Snow White into the forest and dispose of her.”
“Dispose,” said the huntsman, looking blankly at the Queen, “of Snow White?”
”Yes,” said the Queen. “Dispose of her in any way you see fit. Drowned her in a pool or feed her to a wild beast. I don’t care. Just get rid of her.” The Queen had certainly heard of such things in stories, and it seemed the best way.
The Huntsman stood for a moment. “Yes, my Queen,” he said finally. But he had no intension of getting rid of Snow White. Was the queen mad? He had half a mind to go straight to the King, but the Huntsman thought better of it. He headed for the kitchen to talk to the Cook.
In the meantime, Rocky waited for her chance, and then she slipped out of the queen’s chambers. So, she thought to herself, my stepmother wants to dispose of me. We’ll see about that. She pelted off to her own room. She filled a backpack with things that would help her on a journey, put on her heavy coat and shoes, and then she slipped out the back door of the castle and headed into the forest.
(To be continued)

Discovering Anne, An Outsider’s Perspective

I’m spending time reading, writing, and thinking about Anne Shirley these days. Spending time is probably an overstatement. The middle of the winter term doesn’t allow much besides marking and preparing for classes. However, I was reminded recently that I have this interest in Anne and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I sometimes wonder how I got here.
When I was twenty-one and thought I knew something about books and reading, I walked into my parent’s living room to find them engrossed in the television. A girl was on the screen announcing that her name was Anne Shirley—Anne with an E, no less.
Who the hell is Anne Shirley, I thought.
When I asked, my mother gave me a look. “We’re watching Anne of Green Gables.” I left the room.
Anne of Green Gableswas a title I had encountered variously over the years—both at home and at school. It was a girl’s book, as far as I could tell. My sister read it, and that was enough of a reason for me never to touch it.
By the time I was in my late twenties, had read a good deal more, and had begun to realize I knew much less than I thought, I encountered the book again, this time in a graduate seminar with my earliest mentor in children’s literature—Jon Stott of the University of Alberta.
I had taken a course from Jon in my third year as an English student, and his enthusiasm and love for kid’s books pointed out a new direction for my life. I had always loved books such as The Hobbit and The Narnia Chronicles, but thinking of children’s books as a field of study was yet unknown territory. I did an honours tutorial with Jon on Lloyd Alexander, and I took a course with him while finishing my MA. He introduced me again to Anne Shirley. There she was, red-haired and talkative, but since encountering Anne last, I had developed a soft spot for redheads because of my own, then a two-year-old.
I don’t remember liking the book all that much at the time, but something happened over the next few years: Anne, and Montgomery, began to get inside my life. I read more books in the series. I started tutoring a children’s literature course by distance, and Annewas on the reading list. Once they were in school, my kids fell in love with Road to Avonlea—watching it every day after school. It wasn’t Anne of Green Gables this time, but there was that little town again with all of its problems and charm. It was sucking me in.
Not until I began teaching Anne in the classroom did things begin to shift significantly. I found I loved the book. I watched the Kevin Sullivan film; I went on in the classroom at length about Anne’s language, her mistakes, her quirks, and how sometimes, just like Marilla, I wish she would hold her tongue.
My children’s literature classes are generally populated by female students, and every year the Annefans would come forward. I had grown to love the book and the character, but these were young women who grew up with Anne Shirley, and had an attachment to the book born out of that particular sense of discovery that goes with being a young reader. I knew I had to tread carefully.
Having also grown up enough to have an adult relationship with my sister, I talked to her about Anne. She was still a fan. She often reread the books, and she introduced me to another Montgomery character, Emily from Emily of New Moon. I read that series as well. Frankly, I was expecting more Anne, but, no—this was a different character altogether.
Around this time, while I was trying to sort out my academic life, I came across a call for panel proposals on Montgomery. I thought I would send something in. It was rejected, but it gave me a sense of what I was up against and what I was trying to do. Then I heard about the Lucy Maud conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and I went.
It happened to be the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. I flew to Prince Edward Island, and discovered something I wasn’t expecting. Charlottetown was lovely, and I was immediately struck by the place and its people. My first evening in town, I walked down Queen Street in a soft, warm rain. Rain in Edmonton tends to be cold, sharp, and drenching. The people I encountered were interesting and friendly—and I do mean friendly. I found a place to eat, and I had seafood. The next few days gave me more information about Anne and Lucy Maud than I could ever take in.
After that conference, I decided to enter the world of Montgomery scholarship. It was like walking unknowingly up to a hole in the ground. It can’t be that deep, I thought, and jumped in.
I haven’t hit bottom yet. Five conferences, four trips to PEI, and one senior level seminar on Montgomery later, I can say that I know more about Lucy Maud than I ever thought there was to know, and many academics I’ve met know much more.
In spite of all the time reading and writing about Anne, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the world of Anne and Lucy Maud. It came home to me in a forceful way at one of the LMM conferences in Charlottetown. I was with a small group at the banquet, lining up for food. I was getting more and more attached to this island, and I said, casually, “Maybe I’ll move out here and become an islander as well.”
My words were met by a short, shocked silence. “You can’t become an islander,” was the immediate chorus in reply.
I was a little taken aback. My hosts explained to me that you are only ever born an islander. You can live on PEI for your entire life, but if you weren’t born there, then you are never an islander. You “come from away.”
That left me feeling rather deflated, and the comment stuck with me for the next year. One day, again reading and thinking about Anne, I had a revelation: Anne comes from away. She was born in Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, which meant that Anne, too, was an outsider and always would be. Anne, the girl who comes from away, was my refrain until the next time I visited PEI. I still feel like something of an outsider to the world of Anne and Lucy Maud, but I’ve also taken no little satisfaction in knowing I shared this much with the talkative redhead who has become so much a part of my life.