26 January, 2012

'Sweetly' by Jackson Pearce

Like its predecessor Sisters Red, Sweetly is a story we know inside and out, modernized and retold. Jackson Pearce has taken a classic fairy tale-- in this case, Hansel and Gretel-- and cut it open, messed around with its insides, and sewn it back up again. The story looks the same, and the bones of it haven't changed, but almost everything else about it has-- in my opinion, for the better.
I honestly never thought I would be into a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. It always seemed one of the driest and most boring fairy tales, a story that was truly for little children. Also, as a precociously clever child, I couldn't help thinking those kids had to be morons not to realize bread crumbs were a colossally stupid thing to use if you wanted a path you could retrace later. What dorks! Naturally, the closest to lost in the woods I'd ever been was fifty yards from my grandparents' back doorstep, but that didn't matter to little Emily. I told myself I wouldn't have been scared; I would've remembered to use something that would last.

Sweetly's opening scene was a swift and vicious reminder that, as Frank Herbert famously asserted, fear is the mind-killer. With frightening precision, Pearce describes the flight of three children through the woods from a monster they can't see, but which they know is out to get them. Three children run; only two make it out. Ansel and Gretchen survive, while their sister is lost forever, leaving their family broken and Gretchen, especially, with a deep and abiding sense of guilt that lasts into her young adulthood. This scene is well done: it's scary, fast-paced, and over so quick I felt like I'd been for a jog myself. It also sets up the important questions the rest of the story tries to answer, about what really chased them, how much of what happened was real, and most importantly, why Gretchen survived while her twin was taken.

Over a decade later, the kids are kicked out of their stepmother's house and hit the road. They end up in a sleepy little town called Live Oak and move in with Sophia Kelly, who owns and runs the chocolate shop that was once her father's. Sophia is warm and caring, and quickly gives Gretchen and Ansel a place to call home. But not everything is candy and cookies in Sophia's world; half the town blames her for the mysterious disappearances that keep happening after her annual chocolate festival. They think she's bad news, and they want her gone. Gretchen and Ansel, however, feel a kinship with Sophia that they've never had with anyone but each other, and when they're invited to stay on through the summer, they accept.

What follows is a dreamy and delicious few chapters that dropped me right into the feeling of a hot Southern summer-- which, given that I live in New England and it's January, was a welcome sensation. Pearce's writing is colorful, and her descriptions of the charming house, Sophia's candy creations, and the stately forest surrounding them felt real enough to touch. I was lulled by the writing just as Gretchen was drawn in by the peace of life in Sophia's house-- but like Gretchen, I worried whether all was as it seemed.

The discordant note that jars Gretchen out of her summery daze is the feeling that something is lurking in the woods-- something that feels like the witch of her youth, the monster that stole her sister. Before long she discovers that she's right-- the witch is back-- but it's not what she thought it was. It's not what I thought it would be either; the revelation that this was another story about the Fenris that menaced Rosie and Scarlett in Sisters Red was one I hadn't seen coming. And once Gretchen knows what she's up against, she takes it upon herself to learn how to fight back.

I liked this aspect to Sweetly. Rosie and Scarlett knew how to protect themselves; they fought with knives and axes and weren't shy about improvising weapons when they needed them. Gretchen had no such familiarity at the start of the book, but she doesn't let her ignorance be an excuse for powerlessness. In some respects she's a more powerful and empowering heroine than either of the sisters red, because the reader gets to go on her journey of self-transformation with her. Learning how to shoot a gun isn't just a way to protect herself, it's symbolic of her decision to finally become active in her own life instead of letting it passively happen around her. And like all tough choices, it has tough consequences, both for Gretchen and for everyone around her.

But enough about Gretchen. Let's talk a bit about the other strong girl character in this book, the enigmatic confectioner Sophia. Right away she reminded me of another chocolate-loving out-of-towner who causes consternation in a tiny community: Joanne Harris's Vianne Rocher. Sophia is sweet and interesting and warm, an independent young woman who doesn't let the disapproval of others make her afraid to be herself. But unlike Vianne, Sophia has dark secrets she's struggling to keep. The hints of a sad story in her past and her unwillingness to talk about it make her, especially for Gretchen, a heady mix of mystery and familiarity. I guessed from the start that the townies' concerns about her festival being connected to the girls' disappearances were well founded, and that there would be a story behind it. I was right, and although I tried throughout to guess what the story would be, I didn't ever figure it out. I was initially disappointed at the reveal, feeling like it robbed Sophia of some of her agency in her own life-- as a contrast to Gretchen, whose story is all about empowerment, it seemed unfortunate to draw a contrast by proving that Sophia hasn't been in control of her life for a long time. But after more consideration it seems to fit the theme of the book. Gretchen spends a lot of time wondering why she was spared while her sister was taken, and learning the rest of Sophia's story seems to offer a different sort of "road less taken" comparison.

I have to admit I enjoyed the romance in this book. It's something I've come to anticipate, sometimes dread, in retold fairy tales, but Sweetly handled it well. It didn't take over the plot, but was an important part of it-- Ansel and Sophia's doomed affair was as bittersweet for me to watch as it was for Gretchen, and Gretchen's confusion about the tough and reckless Samuel was cute without being sappy. I also liked the undertones of intimacy in Gretchen and Sophia's friendship. It felt real and natural, and helped amp up the tension for Gretchen between her adoration of her friend and knowing that something is rotten in the state of the chocolate shop. That nuance in friendship isn't always subtle in young adult lit, so I was pleased to see that the subtext was there without Pearce feeling the need to make a point of it.

Jackson Pearce said in the afterword that she had a hard time writing Sweetly. I can imagine it took a lot of emotional investment to write, but I think it paid off. This book isn't an award winner, and as an adult it certainly wasn't the most gripping YA I've ever read. It has its flaws in pacing and style, and I didn't feel the same fear for the characters throughout the book as I did in the first chapter, but overall it was a decent read. The book re-weaves an old story into something that feels new-- new enough, at least, that I'd recommend this to middle- or high-schoolers looking for a fun, fast read. Pearce is a creativer storyteller who seems dedicated to building up the cast of strong girl protagonists in young adult literature, and while there are better written and more innovative retellings out there, these are worth a read. Fathomless isn't out until August, but I'm already interested to see how Pearce has turned her talents to shaking up 'The Little Mermaid'.

I gave Sweetly four out of five stars. What did you think?

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