Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.  While we aren't Jewish, we've just finished a three-month study of that religion, and it felt like we should acknowledge the holiday in some way (besides the fact that we're having potato latkes for dinner tonight).

One thing that really impressed me about the Jewish religion is the amount of focus they put on their holy book, the Torah.  That is, they really honor and celebrate the book itself, not just the wisdom it contains. So I thought, in honor of Hanukkah, I would spend the next eight nights on my blog reviewing books that I think brought light to the world in the past year.  They will probably be books we've been reading for my son's Mock Newbery Book Club, but we'll see what I come up with.

For tonight, the first night of Hanukkah, I am reviewing The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler.  This book is quite a lovely book.  It is a retelling of a fairy tale, and so it contains all sort of classic fairy tale elements--noble princes and beautiful princesses, witches good and evil, spells and enchantments, and even an invisibility cloak.  However, it is based on one of the lesser-known stories--the Grimm Brother's tale of The 12 Dancing Princesses.  This is a relatively later story (it is not thought to have been told earlier than the 17th century) and pretty much confined to Eastern Europe.  In the original version, the plot focuses on figuring out the "how"--how the 12 beautiful princesses wear out their shoes every night, even though they are locked in their bedrooms.  Zahler's version fleshes out the "why"--why do they spend every night dancing in a fantastical place beneath the lake by the castle.

The proceedings in this book are told by the "thirteenth princess," the outcast sister of the 12 dancers.  It falls to her to unravel the mystery of what is happening with her sisters, who are suffering much more dire consequences for their nightly sojourns.  She is helped in her efforts by a stout-hearted stable boy, a kindly witch, and a handsome soldier.  But the story is mainly hers, as she seeks to discover herself along with saving her sisters.

This is a great story for adaptation because it hasn't been done to death, and even the Grimm Brother's description of the enchanted lands are quite beautiful.  But in Zahler's words, the place becomes luminous, even though there are hints of a dark force behind the gorgeous veneer.  It deal with great themes for the early adolescent--the search for oneself, how one does and does not fit in with one's familiars or peers, how things that you've known since childhood may look different with viewed with maturing eyes, and, of course, the quest for true love and our personal "happily ever after."  And it contains a lesson that I repeat often to my son and my students:  that even good things--for example, love or parents' attempts to protect their children from harm--can go bad if taken to an extreme.

I enjoyed reading this book myself, but I think it is a great story for middle schoolers as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment