Gail Carson Levine
Harper Collins, 1997
Retellings of fairly tales are common enough, but this modern take on the Cinderella story is far better than most. Here Ella (short for Eleanor, not Cinderella) is saddled with more than a wicked stepfamily. At Ella’s birth a misguided fairy gave her the “gift” of obedience. She has in fact been cursed with an inability to disobey a direct command. Throughout her childhood, Ella finds entertaining and ingenious ways to cope with the curse. But later, on the verge of adulthood, she discovers that if she cannot find a way to remove the curse, it will mean not only her own undoing, but the undoing of the people and the land she loves.
The story features elves and gnomes and ogres and giants – and yes, a pumpkin-turned-carriage and a charming Prince (Charmont, known to friends and family simply as Char). What is most delightful about this version of the Cinderella story is that Ella and Char actually meet, get to know one another, and fall in love over the course of a witty and romantic courtship. Their relationship is based on friendship and respect, not just a few dances at a ball. However, there is an obstacle to their happiness, an obstacle far more sinister than simply turning, at the stroke of midnight, into a charwoman sitting atop a pumpkin. Ella must solve this problem before she can get on with the business of living happily ever after. And, of course, she gets it terribly wrong before she sets it right.
What Ella ultimately achieves is not simply to be loved, but to be known, and nonetheless loved for what she is. In another popular fairy tale, recently adapted, a “princess” has to give up her voice to get what she wants. In this story Ella has to gain her own voice and gain control of her life in order to get what she wants, and save the kingdom in the bargain.
Levine is not at all heavy-handed with this feminist interpretation. In the end, Ella is saved (and saves the day) by love. It is not, however, the superficial love of most fairy tales and their adaptations. Ella’s is not a “princess” story about some empty-headed princess wannabe for whom scoring a husband (whose value is based solely on his wealth and good looks) is the main goal in life. It is instead a story about the redeeming power of love. Real love. The happily ever after is hard-won and genuine.