The Restless River and Traditions of the Fractured Fairy Tale

I found Evelyn Sharp’s fairy tale The Restless River, and our subsequent discussion of the role of subversive or counter-culture fairy tales, to be a fascinating part of today’s class. As someone who grew up during the young adult fiction boom of the late 1990s and 2000s, increasingly being referred to as YA’s second golden age, fractured and reworked fairy tales played a significant role in my childhood. Books like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Nancy Springer’s I am Morgan le Fay, and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Just Ella take well-known fairy tale tropes and subvert them, often featuring particularly spunky heroines who take initiative in determining their own fates. These fractured fairy tales and their ilk, mainly written by women, are very similar to The Restless River in their ability to transcend their publishers’ intended audience and appeal to readers of all ages. They also covertly disseminate messages about gender and gender role subversion by veiling them in the guise of engaging, but not threateningly iconoclastic, stories.

Still, they’re not entirely radical. Many of these reworked fairy tales, in both the late 1800s and the early 2000s, still have “happy” endings that decidedly affirm cultural ideas of a positive and meaningful life. Romance, usually ending in marriage, is the end goal, and while these works (and their heroines) subvert rigid ideas of proper decorum, women characters still often end up embodying cultural norms through the fulfillment of their destiny in marriage.

Children’s literature plays a significant role in developing childhood ideas of gender, sexuality, and proper behaviour.

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