Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I kissed a goose girl and I liked it

When I bought Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, a very dear friend remarked, quite amusedly, "Oh, what's that?" Perhaps he was taken aback by the somewhat cheesy cover. Or maybe the weird title set him off. I couldn't blame him though—the cover is quite fluffy and the title, well, it's just one of those less familiar fairy tales by the Grimm brothers.

So yes, Hale's The Goose Girl is a retelling of a fairy tale. (You can read the original version here.) But it's a retelling that kept me entertained during a holiday. The young adult novel is Hale's debut, and it has become so widely read that 3 more books followed it, making up "The Books of Bayern" series.

Our goose girl is Crown Princess Ani of the kingdom of Kildenree, who gets betrothed against her will to a prince of the neighboring kingdom of Bayern. We can say that Ani was probably a fish out of water in her native land, where people see her ability of speaking to animals as a very unnatural gift. It doesn't help that her mother, the queen, sees her as being unfit to rule, forcing to queen to promise the crown to the second-born prince.

So Ani is whisked away to that unfamiliar kingdom with her small band of royal guards and Selia, her lady-in-waiting, who has other plans of her own once they reach Bayern. Selia manages to raise a mutiny while in transit and assumes the identity of Princess Ani, who escapes and finds herself in the employ of the palace—as the girl who tend to the king's 50 geese. And as goose girl, she befriends the other people under the king's employ, people who, despite being Bayern natives, still feel alienated. In Bayern, there appears to be a rough stratification of its citizens, with people who come from the outside forests being treated as second class.

At heart, The Goose Girl is a coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the novel, Ani seems to just go with whatever people decide for her. She doesn't even see the value of being the crown princess. But she comes to a beautiful bloom as the goose girl: appreciating the value of hard work, realizing the importance of forming true friendships, coming to terms of who she really is, and even falling in love with an elusive character. One can't help but love Ani, and one does wish that she makes everything right.

The Goose Girl, being a fairy tale, has a happy ending. But this conclusion doesn't feel contrived at all, which is so unlike the denouements in fairy tales wherein everything becomes conveniently right. Ani uses her gift in a pivotal fight sequence. In a way, she "works" to make things right. And the reader might feel giddy to discover the true identity of our elusive boy.

It's not all fluff though. Hale gives us a few bloody fight scenes. And Selia's way of talking to Ani can come off as very bitchy. (A modern retelling indeed!) But let's face it, we read these stories because we want to feel good. Because fairy tales, no matter how fantastical they may seem, make us want to believe that the betrayed princess gets her crown, traitorous people get punished and sometimes killed, true friends are rewarded, and people live happily ever after.

Read this book if:
  1. You love modern retellings of fairy tales.
  2. You always felt that you can speak to animals.
  3. You're dissatisfied with the usual fairy-tale endings.