Sunday, June 20, 2010

Out of the Darkness, Into the Light: A Look at Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce


Strangers never walk down this road, the sisters thought in unison as the man trudged toward them.” –Sisters Red, The Prologue

Little Red Riding Hood and I go way back. I've spent many, many hours fawning over my copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and no matter how old I get or how many times I've read it, that immortal bedside dialogue always makes my breath quicken and my heart beat faster. Every single time. Nothing makes me regress faster, in fact, except Disney movies. When I was nine, my grandmother (of course, my grandmother) made me a red hooded cloak which I still have. I know Roald Dahl’s kickass Revolting Rhymes version by heart and occasionally recite it on command at family parties (I could do it at eight and I think the family’s amused that over ten years later, I haven’t forgotten it so they still request it). When I was twelve, I saw the movie version of The Company of Wolves (mostly between my fingers), which introduced me to Angela Carter who is now one of my favorite authors. It was one of the first fairy tales I learned to read in German, and for better or worse, it’s the first thing I think of whenever I step off the bike path in the park—even if it’s just to answer my phone! So yeah, I dig Little Red Riding Hood. I am emotionally invested in its existence as a folktale that continues to influence literature, pop culture et all. This doesn’t grant me any particular authority, but I do know a bit about its history and the story definitely means a lot to me.

So. Now that that’s all out in the open, let me get on with what I came here to say: Sisters Red is one of THE BEST Little Red-inspired things I’ve ever read. Period.

I found this book completely by accident. It came out literally last week. I was on SurLaLune, an online cornucopia of fairy tale awesomeness, and looked, as I always do, at their advertisements for newly released fairy tale books. My eye immediately went to the above cover which is probably one of the most effective covers I’ve seen in a long time. No dimly obscured heroine vaguely touching something here. No terrifying corsets or completely inaccurate character renderings. Nope. Just a shocker of red/black/white magic that knocks you between the eyes and practically forces you to open the cover. Didn’t get a good look at it before? Scroll back up. I’ll wait.

See. Moving right along.

Now seeing as how not everybody has the same involved relationship with Little Red Riding Hood that I do, here’s a brief synopsis of the tale itself just in case it’s been awhile. Our Heroine, a little girl defined by the red cloak (or cap in some versions) she always wears, ventures off into the woods to visit her sick grandmother. Before she leaves, she promises her mother that she WILL NOT STRAY FROM THE PATH. That’s a gun over the fireplace if ever there was one. Along the way, she meets a Wolf who sweet talks her off the path and into a nearby meadow where she wastes time picking flowers while he sneaks off to Granny’s. He promptly eats the old woman, dresses in her clothes, and hops into bed, eager to enjoy the little girl as well. When Little Red arrives, she falls for this impregnable ruse, sensing something is amiss but unable to put her finger on what specifically. She and the Wolf engage in the aforementioned dialogue (“‘What big eyes you have’ ‘The better to see you with, my dear’” etc.) and then the Wolf eats her. Now depending on the version you read, the story either ends here (Charles Perrault) or with a huntsman/woodcutter coming in, cutting open the Wolf’s stomach, and freeing the devoured duo, paving the way for a happy ending (the Brothers Grimm). There have, of course, been versions that make this savior come in just before the Wolf eats Little Red as well as versions where the Wolf instead of eating Granny, locks her in a closet (???) Roald Dahl and James Thurber both had Little Red pull out a gun and shoot him. Angela Carter had her sleep with him. But at the end of the day, when talking canon, Perrault’s and the Grimms’ are considered the versions to go by.

Today the moral of the story is generally said to be "See kids, this is why you don't talk to strangers." However, back in Perrault's time it was more along the lines of "See girls, men are bad. They are basically animals who only want one thing. And they will stoop to dressing up like your grandmother to get it. And if they succeed, you might as well be dead because no other man will want to marry you. So always be obedient and never stray from the path society has chartered for you." Even the Grimms' happy ending reeks of moral clean up. In their version, if the Wolf is the man who will lead you astray, then the huntsman/woodcutter is the man who will save you (most likely your father). Despite the more sanitized versions that reign supreme nowadays, it probably doesn't take an exceptionally vivid imagination / dirty mind to recognize the story's history as a sexual morality tale, tracing one little girl's downfall from trusting innocent to wolfmeat. Never stray, indeed.

I think there’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of novels based on Little Red Riding Hood, even though it’s been the subject of countless poems and short stories. There just isn’t that much there in terms of length. In terms of depth, sure, but not length. Any retelling worth its salt should comment in some way on its source material whether to reinterpret it or satirize it or whatever the author wants to do. The brilliance of Sisters Red lies in the fact that it does this while also telling its own story. Sisters Red isn’t so much a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (except, perhaps, for the prologue, which is worth the cost of the book all by itself) as it is a fantasy-horror novel rooted in Little Red imagery and mythology that tells its own story while also making an empowering statement about the fairy tale that inspired it. No small feat.

Since they were little girls, Scarlett and Rosie March have lived with one all-consuming purpose: to hunt and kill as many Fenris as possible. What’s a Fenris? You and I might call them werewolves, but we would be wrong. They’re Fenris and they’re scary as hell. These attractive, seemingly ordinary men seduce young girls (the younger the better) into trusting them. Once they have their victims isolated and vulnerable, they transform into monstrous wolves and viciously devour them. As children, Scarlett and Rosie barely survived the Fenris attack that left their grandmother dead, Scarlett brutally injured, and the knowledge of this big bad evil alive and well inside them. With the help of their friend and neighbor Silas, a woodsman’s son, they track down, lure, and kill as many of these monsters as they can in their small Georgia village. The crux of the action takes place seven years after the attack. Scarlett, now eighteen-years old, lives for hunting. It is her passion and the only thing, apart from her sister, that sustains her. She also sees it as her responsibility. How can she do anything else knowing that the Fenris are out there? Sixteen-year-old Rosie, however, is starting to itch for a more “normal” life. She wants to stand by her sister, but she also wants to fall in love and go to school and enjoy herself, and a life dedicated to hunting leaves no room for that. This conflict tests the bond between these devoted but utterly different sisters as they leave their small town for the big city of Atlanta where Fenris are literally everywhere. It’s a story about a lot of things: responsibility, guilt, normalcy, love, fear, passion, why we make the choices we make, and what it means to live in the light while others live in darkness. But most of all, it’s about sisters.

Scarlett and Rosie are achingly real characters. I loved them and identified with them both even though they are vastly different. They take turns narrating in first-person chapters and when the book ended, I wanted them to go on confiding in me, which is always a wonderful feeling. I felt like I knew them. They’re badass in the best sense, able to fight and destroy Fenris with hatchets, knives, and their womanly wiles, but they’re also vulnerable and their bond is heart wrenching. Pearce wittily evokes the iconic imagery of the fairy tale by dressing her heroines in red hooded cloaks for their hunts. The color red, appropriately, gets the Fenris’ juices flowing faster than Pavlov’s bell, echoing the long-held interpretation that Little Red’s cloak symbolizes the sexual desire she supposedly stirs in the Wolf. Waiting in the wings for the fight to begin is Silas, also a very well-drawn character. He’s a good guy. He cares about the girls and fights alongside them, but he is not, thank God, the savior that his folkloric ancestor is. That said, I am grateful that Sisters Red is not the kind of book where the Patented Generic Strong Female Lead whips her hair back and says, “I don’t NEED a man’s help.” I always appreciate guys and gals working together on an equal plane and Sisters Red delivers that.

I also really enjoyed the world of the book. It’s the real world with a twist, a world where Scarlett and Rosie can wear red cloaks everywhere they go and not raise eyebrows; where Silas can come from a long line of woodsmen; and where pretty, flirty girls are known as Dragonflies. It’s basically the world of the fairy tale set in the 21st century. Fittingly, their small Southern neighborhood lies on the edge of a forest, but you can meet a bad guy just as easily in the city as in the country. The book is so fast-paced I finished it almost without realizing and I was utterly absorbed throughout. The characters reveal themselves subtly through conversation and action. The fight scenes are well-orchestrated, suspenseful, and they ALL contribute significantly to the plot, though the girls’ interactions with the Fenris before they transformed were what really frightened me.

Jackson Pearce deserves an award simply for the Fenris. Nowadays, when fiction is dominated by the “monster that cares,” it was perversely refreshing to meet creatures so unapologetically evil. The Fenris are literally soulless. There’s no “maybe we can reason with them,” or “let my love tame the beast inside you” here. No, these are monsters who will track you, charm you into submission, frighten you for their own pleasure, and finally, brutally, kill you. The prologue—I know I mentioned the prologue already, but seriously, it’s amazing—sent a shiver up my spine. I’m talking gooseflesh and I read it safe and sound under the bright lights of my office’s break room, surrounded by people. I’ve read many retellings of Little Red and met a lot of Big Bad Wolves, but that son of a bitch in the prologue put them all to shame in terms of pure fear factor. The best fantasy, in my opinion, acts as an allegory for real life; what makes the Fenris so frightening is how eerily real they are. Little Red’s Wolf has often been interpreted as a sexual predator, and the Fenris are basically sexual predators. Their change from men to monsters is triggered by lust, rage, and the need to dominate. They see their victims first as playthings and finally as meat. Many scenes in Sisters Red are genuinely unnerving, tapping into something primal in the subconscious, which is what good fantasy is supposed to do.

Sisters Red does not abide by the “rules” set down in the folktale. Nobody dresses up like anybody’s grandmother. Nobody waits to be rescued. It has an emotional relationship at its heart that the folktale doesn’t: Little Red doesn’t have a sister. Best of all, unlike the most well-known versions of the story, Sisters Red is not a lesson in moral downfall or a cautionary tale about how easily girls can fall victim to dangerous men. Instead, it’s about young women being empowered enough to acknowledge the evil around them, look it in the face, and decide they’re not going to let it beat them, and this idea, it turns out, might be truer to the spirit of Little Red Riding Hood than even the Perrault and Grimm versions. See, Little Red Riding Hood has gone down in history as a naïve, foolish little girl who falls right into the hands of a predator, but that was not always the case.

There’s a little-known version of the folktale called The Story of Grandmother. Though it was first printed in 1885, 73 years after the Grimms’ version and almost 200 years after Perrault’s, it lived a long and healthy life in the French oral tradition, dating probably as far back as the Middle Ages. In this version, the heroine, a young woman of indeterminate age, sets off to take bread and milk to her grandmother, but she never dons a symbolic cloak or promises not to stray from the path. This tale is blatantly more sexual than your better known versions. When the heroine arrives at the house to find a wolf in her grandmother’s bed, she is not fooled for a minute. She does, however, perform a striptease for him, removing all her clothing at his command until she’s naked, and nothing remains except to climb in bed beside him. Before the Wolf has a chance to devour her (make of that what you will), she tricks him into letting her go outside to go to the bathroom, promising to keep a rope tied around her foot so he can hold onto her. Once outside, of course, she unties the rope and runs like hell, leaving the Wolf all by his lonesome. This story was passed down from generation to generation across the French countryside as young girls grew up and prepared for courtship. It was still treated as a cautionary tale, warning them of men with unsavory intentions, but it did not treat sex or sexuality as the key to a lady's undoing, literal or otherwise. In The Story of Grandmother, the heroine uses her sexuality and quick thinking to outsmart the Wolf. No moralizing death or male savior here; she saves herself. What I love best about Sisters Red is that it’s a glorious return to this idea. Scarlett and Rosie are, as Angela Carter once put it, nobody’s meat. They’re not afraid or ashamed of their sexuality; they’re empowered by it, knowing they can use it to attract the Fenris. They’re smart, they’re powerful, they can fight, they love each other, and they are survivors, which gives them all the strength they need. And that’s pretty awesome, actually.

Do yourself a favor and read Sisters Red. It’s the best thing to happen to Little Red Riding Hood in a long time. Even if you haven’t read Little Red Riding Hood since you were five and your kindergarten teacher forced you to sit through it during Story Time when you just wanted to play with the trucks, read it. It’s a damn good book.

P.S. For further information about Little Red Riding Hood’s vast history, I highly recommend Yvonne Verdier’s “Little Red Riding Hood in Oral Tradition,” Jack Zipes’s The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, and Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, all of which aided me in the writing of this rather lengthy blog entry. And here's SurLaLune...because you know you want to. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/


Image Via: http://darkfaerietales.com/wp-content/uploads/Sisters-Red.jpg

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