Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede (1989)
This little gem of a book was a happy find. The Grimm fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red has always been a favourite of mine, one that I might explore in a retelling of my own one day, but this was the first novel length version I have read.
Wrede’s retelling is faithful to the Grimm’s tale, only departing from the original by substituting the gnarly dwarf with a gnarly human, but otherwise retaining the familiar elements, namely the two sisters dwelling with their widowed mother in a woodland cottage, and the mysterious talking bear that comes to beg shelter at their fireside by night. The story is fleshed out nicely with the sisters and mother cast as herb women; the sisters gather plants from the woods, which their mother prepares into remedies to sell to the townsfolk. Little do the townsfolk know that the herbal wares are so efficacious due to the plants being gathered across the border of Faerie. Such a fact has to be carefully guarded, or accusations of witchcraft might ensue, a crime that is punishable by death.
I especially liked the Elizabethan setting of the story, and the blend of history and fantasy. The author has taken the real-life historical persons of John Dee and Edward Kelley and cast them, most aptly, as a pair of meddling wizards. In real life John Dee was an alchemist and astrological advisor to Queen Elizabeth in an age when superstition and belief in magic overlapped with emerging scientific discoveries. Edward Kelley was famous (or infamous) for his claim to have discovered the secret of the philosopher’s stone enabling him to transmute base metals into gold. Kings, lords and emperors gave him their patronage but, needless to say, he had some trouble proving his claims, and history remembers him as a charlatan.
Another influence in Wrede's story is that of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night's Dream; the widow mother in Wrede's story is Widow Arden, a nod to Shakespeare’s magical forest, while the sisters pass in and out of Faerie, the domain of the Faerie Queen. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream there are parallel stories unfolding in the Faerie kingdom and the human world, while a faerie character called Robin makes an appearance (Robin Goodfellow aka Shakespeare’s Puck). The dialogue might not be to everyone’s taste as it has an Elizabethan style of speech with a lot of thees and thous, but I didn’t mind that at all.
I enjoyed this blend of fairy tale and historical setting. It's a shame this 30-year-old story hasn't been updated as an ebook yet, but If you don’t object to a Tudor flavour in the dialogue, and you do enjoy a well-told tale with a romantic happy ending it is well worth sourcing a paperback copy.