Friday, February 24, 2012

A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz


A rather intrusive narrator walks the reader through a gory retelling of a half a dozen or so of the Grimms' lesser known fairy tales.  The catch?  All six stories feature Hansel and/or Gretel in the role of the protagonist.  The opening tale explains the siblings' motivation for fleeing their seemingly idyllic home (and their thoroughly unsatisfactory--to them, anyway--parents); hence the initial 'Hansel and Gretel' woodland adventure.  Their quest for better parents carries them through the Grimm wilds of fairy land and back again, where they discover that danger threatens their home . . . Will they be able to reconcile with their parents and save the kingdom of Grimm?

I confess, I feel a bit ill-at-ease about my impression of this book.  It came to me highly recommended by friends, and the reviews have been consistently good.  Perhaps all this hype built up my expectations, but I confess I was a bit . . . underwhelmed.  However, upon further reflection, I think that my response may be more the result of the selected medium than of the book itself.  I opted for the audiobook rather than the print version.  This was a mistake.
You wouldn't think it would be, but it was.  The audiobook is narrated by the excellent (and prolific) Johnny Heller, who's done great work on many of Dave Barry's works and Rob Thomas's debut novel Rats Saw God, along with many other young adult and humor titles.  He's been nominated for several Audie Awards (the Oscars for audiobooks), and has received two nominations this year, one of which was for this very book.  In fact, his narration is what drew me to the audiobook version of this book.  And there's nothing wrong with his performance here, but alas, the result was surprisingly lackluster.

Here's the thing.  I love a voiceover.  I love it when the narrator makes his (or her) presence known in a story.  It makes it feel, well, more like a story.  And I like that.  And I suspect that, had I read the print version of this book, I would have liked the narrator fine.  But in the audiobook version, the narrator was just too much.  He breaks in at regular intervals (like an upbeat Lemony Snicket) to admonish the listener to send all little kids away to bed, because the next bit is just too darn scary for them.  Which is a cute idea, but it gets old.  And after a while, it's hard to live up to. Granted, Grimms' fairy tales are pretty, well, grim, but in this day and age it's going to be tough to really come up with something scary/gory/grotesque enough to keep the 'warnings' from sounding overhyped (just like an unseen monster is often scarier than any actual monster ever could be--nothing lives up to the hype).  Beware the oversell--it builds expectations you simply cannot meet.  I realize these intrusive warnings are still present in the print edition, but I suspect they would be much less obvious--the audiobook made them a little too over-the-top.

That being said, the concept here is pretty creative and fairly well executed.  Gidwitz subs Hansel and Gretel into an assortment of tales, each of which is its own chapter: 'The Seven Ravens' (here played by swallows, since there are already ravens in the story), 'Brother and Sister' (with a few tweaks), 'The Robber Bridegroom' (with a few more tweaks), and 'The Devil with Three Golden Hairs' (possibly my favorite), as well as their own story.  There is also an introductory tale, pre-Hansel and Gretel:  Faithful Johannes, which I also liked (it was very reminiscent of the poignant 'The Six Swans', which I've always loved).  The last few chapters, following the siblings' return to the kingdom of Grimm, are, near as I can tell, original stories in which Hansel and Gretel come to terms with their parents' mistakes and fight the danger that is plaguing their home.  These last chapters were not quite as strong as the Grimm-inspired ones, but they still showed promise.

Bottom line:  The print version is probably better than the audiobook.  May be a bit gory for younger readers, though I suspect kids do better with that than we realize--heaven knows I relished some pretty gruesome stuff when I was younger, and there's a reason the Brothers Grimm have been so consistently popular.  Plus, the tone of the book helps offset the morbid and often bloody events.  But if you or your kid tend to be squeamish, well, you've been warned.  I still think it's well worth reading (and may even be excellent, in print anyway).  Either way, I look forward to reading more of Gidwitz's work in the future.

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