The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
As a child during the Disney Renaissance (Waking Sleeping Beauty claims The Little Mermaid to The Lion King; I extend that all the way up to Tarzan), whatever the Walt Disney Animation Studios said about a fairy tale was law. I was not a bookish child (no matter how loudly I whined that I was), so if a fairy tale didn’t have a high profile animated adaptation, I didn’t know it existed. (Unless it was Little Red Riding Hood. For some reason, I remember knowing that one very early.) This has left considerable gaps in my fairy tale consumption, leaving me in trouble whenever I have to write out “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” or pick up a fairy tale retelling of a fairy tale I know nothing about.
Luckily, they’re terrifically easy to find and read, and I read “The Goose Girl” as soon as I realized I would be better off with the source material under my belt before I went any further in The Goose Girl. I’m acutely interested in the art of adaptation, as you may have noticed, and fairy tales are a particularly fascinating case study. The flat characters and precise detailing of fairy tales gives the adaptor both a structure to work with and plenty of room to maneuver, prime conditions for putting one’s own spin on a story. (Why else tell the story again?)
Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl follows Anidori, Crown Princess of Kildenree. Born with the taboo ability to talk to animals, Ani spends her days training to be queen and walking on eggshells around her powerful, pragmatic mother. After her father dies, however, her mother reveals that, as Ani has never shown an inclination towards queenship (or anything else), her brother will be the heir. Instead of ruling, Ani will marry the prince of Bayern in a political marriage to stave off wars over land. But on the way to Bayern, Ani’s lady-in-waiting, Selia, stages a bloody mutiny to take Ani’s place. Lost, alone, and identity-less in Bayern, Ani becomes the Goose Girl Isi, planning to save her money and head home as soon as possible. But the longer she stays in Bayern, the more she loves the place, and Selia’s plan isn’t finished just yet…
Ultimately, The Goose Girl is a very unique and very real coming of age story. Most coming of age stories seem to deal with a youngster proving themselves (Luke becoming a man by blowing up the Death Star) or with a loss of innocence. Ani comes of age when she begins to construct an identity for herself beyond what others require of her. At the beginning of the novel, she’s incapable of making decisions: she has no idea what she wants, because she has no idea who she is. When she’s forced to start at the bottom in Bayern and falls in with a group of fellow workers who see her as a person, instead of a pawn, she begins to see herself that way. Ani earns her soul, and this is what gives the novel its urgent, timeless heart, not its magical elements. They’re great as atmosphere, but the story does not require them to function.
And what a soul it is. Watching Ani grow is fascinating, as she stumbles, falls, and learns from her failures. Towards the last third of the novel, I realized I would be happy to read a book about her adventures as the Goose Girl of Bayern. I could go on and on about her, but I think the most revealing detail is that Ani, upon failing in love with Bayern, its capital city, and its people, decides that an arranged marriage, even with someone she might not like, would be fine, if she got to be queen of this place. Watching Ani fall in love with Bayern will make you fall in love with her.
The actual love story feels more like a reward than a relationship, which I find interesting, since the novel is a coming-of-age story. On the one hand, I would prefer a more fleshed out romance. (Actually, I would prefer for Ani and Enna to get together, because Enna is either into her or one handsy dame. But I digress.) But, on the other hand, it’s rare to see a story where a young woman is just sort of given a man, as opposed to books where the romance is a major plot element. Especially since the reverse is so prevalent. I was reminded of Colin Stokes’ “How Movies Teach Manhood,” where he discusses how the traditional hero’s narrative teaches boys that girls are a reward.
I was also fascinated by the relationship between Ani and her mother. Her mother is a magnificent and terrifying queen, and it is her inability to see her child as anything more than a failure and a political pawn. It’s important to note that the mother is never demonized; Ani recognizes her as a very effective and beloved queen. (Rather, it’s Selia, the lady-in-waiting, who is the dark queen. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s hard not to notice the parallels between a queen who was assigned the throne on a technicality and a lady-in-waiting willing to sacrifice an entire country for a crown.) Given that the fairy tale is mostly about a mother’s love for her daughter, it’s a bold choice for Hale to make. But bolder still is the fact that the relationship is never fixed, and that’s okay.
There’s plenty more—the people Ani falls in with are the Forest-born, a minority group that send their children to the city to earn money, but that gets stretched a bit thin. And I haven’t even mentioned the talking horse. (There is a talking horse. The end.) But insofar as relationships, women, power, and identity are concerned, The Goose Girl is an absolute gem.
Bottom line: The Goose Girl is a complex coming-of-age story where a young woman earns her own soul in the process of taking back her title. Highly recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.