Sunday, April 10, 2011

Belle: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Cameron Dokey

Belle is the third of three sisters, and her two elder sisters are stunningly beautiful, the eldest with hair of raven black and eyes of blue, and the middle girl is shining blonde and with blue eyes also. But Belle is brown haired and eyed, and even though her sisters are beautiful, it is Belle who was named for Beauty.

Early on, though, Belle comes to realize that while her sisters are beautiful, she is not, but she also has her skill in working wood, learned from her father, to bring her through. And from watching her eldest sister, she comes to realize that physical beauty doesn't always bring happiness, or even love, with it, as her eldest sister is engaged to the son of her father's erstwhile business partner, and the son is a cruel man. So when her father's business takes a bad turn, she copes best when her family must move out of the city and into a small manor house to save money. All she takes with her are her and her father's woodcarving tools, and her own talent for understanding what the wood itself wants her to carve.

In time, she and her sisters come into their own, with one taking over the gardening and the other taking over the cooking. Belle continues to carve. When her father hears that one of his ships has made port, he goes back to the city and asks his daughters what they want him to bring them back. Belle, knowing that part of the wood that he will travel through is enchanted, asks that if he finds the enchanted tree said to lie at the heart of the enchanted wood, to bring her a piece to carve, so that she can see the truth of the enchanted wood for herself.

And on his return, although he doesn't bring his family riches, he does have a story to tell, about the enchanted wood and a beast who he met there, a beast who wants the daughter who can see into the secrets of the wood so she can plumb the secrets of the enchanted tree and perhaps free the beast from the spell that he is under. Belle agrees to go and discovers that the beast is truly under an enchantment- no one can bear to look him in the eyes for even five seconds. But if Belle can discover the secret of the enchanted tree, perhaps she can also discover the secret of the beast, and why he cannot also see her except out of the corner of his eyes.

Who and what is the beast, and why does the secret of the tree so elude her? Can Belle free the beast and discover the true secret of the heartwood tree, and once she has, will she be able to leave the enchanted garden at the heart of the wood, now that she knows its secret?

Considering that the story is a retelling of the famous fairytale, you can guess that Belle is eventually successful in her quest, and finds love as well as the secret of the tree, but where this book shines is in the rest of the story. Beauty and the Beast often makes Belle into the only one of her sisters to have a humble heart and common sense- her sisters are usually depicted as vapid and vain, since in most retellings, they ask for ribbons and shoes from their father when there is a chance that they might have regained part of their fortune.

But this story avoids that by making her sister's requests equally as prosaic as Belle's. Where in the original, all she asked for was a single rose, here, she asks for a piece of the enchanted tree to carve, and her sisters ask for a mixing bowl and some flowers for the garden. And Belle is close to her other two sisters, even though she is the youngest of the family- there is real love there despite the usual depiction of sisters as adversaries or antagonists.

I found the story charming, and while there are lots of differences from the original fairytale, there are plenty of similarities as well, and they made the beast beastly enough without actually describing what it/he looked like, and that completely worked in the story. I also liked the real lesson of the tree, which to me came closest to almost all of the retellings of this tale to the message of the original, and the ending was wonderful as well.

I'd heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in fairytales retold, or just someone who wants to read about a fairytale love that could possibly happen in a more realistic world than that of traditional fairytales. It's a short book, but holds a lot of story impact for its size. Highly recommended.

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