We transport ourselves into the fairy tale. We reimagine ourselves inside its world and, though this is not exclusive to the genre, the form of the fairy tale insists that we exist within it. Each ‘Once Upon a Time’ is a possible beginning to our very own narratives and each ‘…And They Lived Happily Ever After’ is how we hope that our stories will end. As a child, I sought from fairy tales what many children seek: a respite, maybe even an escape from reality—a way to exercise my imagination, overlay my own experiences atop the storybook child’s and, ultimately, derive meaning from nonsense. The lack of verisimilitude felt comforting, refreshing, even honest.
It is within this literary tradition that Kate Bernheimer flourishes. Her latest story collection, How A Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, deftly blends gloomy fairy tales with existential manifestos. Nine nimble stories confront a spectrum of suffering; loneliness, addiction, poverty, and death lay exposed with open language for all to interpret. In “Pink Horse Tale,” a mother sells her body “for cigarettes, Chelada, or food (these are listed in order of preference)” and her youngest daughter dies in a cheap motel on the coast after a magic old woman tricks her. Mother loses her second daughter to the high tide and, haunted by pink – her little girl’s pink horse, a pink sea urchin, the old woman’s pink hair – she drinks herself into unconsciousness on the beach. The story ends. No less pessimistic, “Oh Jolly Playmate!” begins as an innocent tale of girlhood friendship. S—and K—’s journeys are typically coming-of-age; they sing songs together, dress alike, and sneak booze from their parents. A persistent (and perhaps no less typically coming-of-age) sadness lingers throughout the story. S— exclaims:
‘I will now recite a poem about pink!’…Then she recited a long story-poem in which two girls (one blonde haired, one brown) stood by a creek in pink clothes and invented a world in which no mothers went mad. S—’s mother had recently been forgetting to blow out the candles at night; this was on purpose. Fire trucks had to come on several occasions.
In the end, Bernheimer delivers another succinct and devastating conclusion. “Many years later” she writes, “S—died. She thought no one had helped her and so she leapt from a window.”
Throughout her stories, Bernheimer uses flat, abstract language to create worlds where suspension of disbelief and intimate relatability cohabitate beautifully. In the story above, S— commits suicide without motive or even intimation that she was unwell; nevertheless, readers can empathize. Bernheimer offers superficial characters but hints at a world of complexity below that surface. Her language is stark, precise, and open, with little to no imparting of emotion. In “Babes in the Woods,” a stepmother leaves her children to starve to death in the woods because children make her uncomfortable. Characters appear as shadows or silhouettes, barely human. The absence of motives encourages the reader to suspend moral valuation in circumstances in which they would otherwise vilify characters.
Similarly, the author’s use of fairy tale form – often embracing ‘intuitive logic’ or nonsense-sense, and containing beginning, middle, and ends that do not logically follow one another – produces a fluid disconnect that engages the reader and progresses the frequently strange order that feels inevitable, though illogical. As readers, the nonlinear storylines feel natural to us; it recalls traditional oral storytelling. If we rely on distant memories to communicate our experiences, or we are like children whose imagination simply does not follow a linear progression, Bernheimer’s stories feel comforting and shared. Finally, short and saccharine prose poems lie between most of the fairy tales. These pieces evoke a combination of naiveté and earnestness and therefore feel more child-like than the main text, though the language is often similar. While these vignettes are inconsequential to the individual narratives, they serve mainly to punctuate each fairy tale.
The epigraph of Bernheimer’s collection, a quote from Walter Benjamin, reads, “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.” In this 1936 essay, Benjamin expressed that the decline of the storyteller directly reflected the modern world’s inability to communicate experience. Bernheimer shares his concern, and confronts the alienation produced by everyday fatalisms in her latest collection. In transporting ourselves into the world of the fairy tale, we continue to place value in sharing experiences. Throughout How A Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, Bernheimer skillfully and subtly illuminates the necessity of this literary tradition; she maintains a delightful hope in the darkest, most isolating encounters of our existence. If someday you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being held captive in a cage waiting to be fattened in order to be eaten by a cruel witch, what else can you do but try to break loose, push the witch into her own oven, flee, and then have a laugh and a smoke?