Today marks the third (as in 3) installment of my blog, meaning it’s no longer an accident, but by definition, a conspiracy. It seems fairly obvious that I’ll make it through New Year’s Eve at this point, because as the saying goes, once you achieve .8% of something, you’ll most likely finish.
Jean Thompson’s story “The Witch” is the subject of this magical third blog. It’s the title story from her latest collection, The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told, out this past year from Blue Rider Press. I chose it because it was another new collection from 2015 that I got and never got a chance to open until break, its compelling cover making me want to both read it and hide it under books that had less-creepy kids staring out at me (see below).
It’s also Jean Thompson’s birthday today, which I know because Jean’s an old pal of mine, dating back to the early 90s when I was a student in her workshops at Illinois. Jean has given me some of the sagest advice I’ve ever gotten from a writer or a teacher, two gems I still quote to my students to this day. The first, when I asked her how to become a published writer, she told me to “Find your favorite story, the best story you’ve ever read, then write a better story.” This bummed me out, as I was hoping there was just a guy she knew I could call or something. Secondly, when I was heading off to grad school, she remarked that “MFA programs are great for making you hate workshop, for making you want to be finished with workshop and just write.” Not immediately encouraging, still, she was right, as by my last semester, looking at the same faces sitting across that same conference table, hearing them say the same things for the fourth or fifth semester, I was done. Jean Thompson is Yoda (though she speaks sentences in normal order … no “Predictable, your classmates will become.”).
The Witch is a book of retold fairy tales, something that Thompson notes, in an intro, as crucial and inevitable. Author intros to contemporary books are rare, but this is an intro worth reading, as she sets up her project, lets us know what she’s doing and why. I was also able to mine more Thompson gems. For example, she reminds us that this is exactly what Disney has been doing since its inception, in case anyone thought their non-Pixar branch had built itself on original ideas. I also learned that the story of the Pied Piper leading rats away from an infested town was likely a metaphor for a very real Medieval town discarding an overpopulation of children, abandoning them at the gates, not enough moldy bread and plague to feed everyone. Stark and cruel, but as I write this and listen to my sons try to kill each other over the Wii U, I find myself checking eBay for cheap fifes.
Moving on, the story “The Witch” retells “Hansel and Gretel,” first brought to you by the Grimm Brothers. The last time I checked in on those yummy twins, they were grown up and hunting witches and bad CGI. Thompson, however, has chosen to ignore this part of the canon, rendering a more subtle retelling. All the elements are there, though: child abandonment, a stepmother, the fattening of children, a dramatic escape, and, of course, the titular witch.
Despite my familiarity with the original tale, its numerous retellings, and my expectations for a project dubbed “Tales Re-Told,” I was never, at any point, able to predict anything in the story. Her contemporizing proves Thompson instinctive, that it’s worth retelling classic stories, adapting them for the contemporary readership. Without giving away details or the wonderful ending of “The Witch,” I’ll say that this author has succeeded in placing an absurd bedtime yarn in the modern world, seamlessly, without the original story distracting from the new one. I read the story anticipating certain tropes, but never realized they were there until I was well past them. A few times, I finished a passage, identified something familiar, and said, “Oh, right.”
I’m also a big fan of the perspective this story is written from, a close first person from one of the children, grown up. If there’s a surprise ending to the plot (there is, as mentioned), the perspective also offers something surprising at the end, a stroke that perhaps makes the story for me, really solidifies it as great.
One (non-Thompson) workshop professor of mine used to say that all stories are based on a Disney film, going so far as to ask, at the start of every workshop, “So, what Disney movie is this?” I’m guessing that Jean Thompson, in The Witch, wasn’t working off this advice, but on her own accords. The Witch proves a fascinating project, and after reading the first story, I’m excited to move forward and see what else Thompson does with this concept, how she weaves the classically familiar into the everyday.
Happy birthday, Jean! Once again, you done good.