“There were few things more pleasurable than a cracking version of Hansel and Gretel and
a good scab.” *

h1 July 5th, 2007 by jules

Into the Woods
By Lyn Gardner
With illustrations by Mini Grey
David Fickling Books
Originally published in Great Britain in 2006
First American Edition: June 2007
(review copy)

“The fact that Lyn Gardner is a theatre critic and that Into the Woods is also the name of one of Stephen Sondheim’s best known pieces should act as an immediate prompt that here is a book with a magpie capacity for picking up shiny scraps from all over the place,” wrote Kathryn Hughes in a 2006 Guardian Unlimited review. And Hughes pretty much nailed it. Overall, what Gardner has done in this novel aimed at intermediate-aged readers is re-created the story of The Pied Piper. But, yes, she was evidently inspired by a whole heapin’ bunch of fairy tales (Perrault, The Brothers Grimm, Andersen, you-name-it), myths, and fantasies. “Add in references to Shrek, Narnia and even Touching the Void, and you have the kind of glorious mish-mash of ancient and modern that is sometimes achieved by a very good pantomime,” added Hughes about what she calls “a merry bubbling pot of a text.”

But, even if you are a reader whose hair isn’t exactly blown back by such reinvented, hodgepodge tales, you still might want to consider Gardner’s rollicking story of three sisters, Storm, Aurora, and Any (short for “Anything; when the sisters asked their checked-out father about naming the child, he responds, “‘Oh, call her anything . . . ‘”). The three sisters live in the woods at Eden End — near a village with an over-population of rats and a sinister man named Dr. DeWilde who has been called forth as Exterminator to solve the rodent problem — with their oh-so dainty-weak and inattentive mother (Zella, who “held the view that exercise was so harmful to health that she seldom moved”) and their absent-minded, equally-inattentive father (“{w}hen Reggie Eden was not laughing and whispering with Zella, he was either away on one of his expeditions or busy planning the next one with a large DO NO DISTURB sign pinned to his study door”). Storm’s sister, the beautiful Aurora, is the domestic genius and working head of the household. As the girls’ mother is dying, she gives bold, adventurous Storm a little musical tin pipe, telling her to “use it wisely and only if you have desperate need” and warning her of its “terrible power.” And, after she passes away, their grieving father eventually skips town, once again on an expedition, but he leaves a cryptic note, warning Aurora to be extra vigilant on her sixteenth birthday.

Before they know it, Dr. DeWilde shows up at the girls’ home and demands that Storm hand over the pipe. Not understanding its power, she still refuses to give it to him. Eventually, DeWilde and his wolves chase the girls from Eden End and into the woods. A series of adventures and misadventures ensue, their journey suddenly turning into a rescue attempt for Any, who is being hauled off to Piper’s Peak, where children become slaves for DeWilde. Storm also learns the true power of the pipe hanging from her neck and the terrifying, awesome power behind Dr. DeWilde’s intentions.

Add in DeWilde’s sidekick, Bee Bumble, the matron of her own version of a gingerbread house (but even more sinister, if that’s possible) — the Ginger House Orphanage for lost, abandoned and foundling children — and an elderly ogress the sisters believe to be bad who turns out to be decidely not bad and, to boot, a family member, much to their surprise.

And also add in Mini Grey’s delightfully playful, clever illustrations, complete with a subtle and amusing appearance by Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat! (which I won’t explain and will leave for you to find).

The School Library Journal review wrote, “{t}he breathless plot, which pulls readers into an escalating series of dangerous situations, hairbreadth escapes, bitter defeats, and surprising triumphs, is grounded in the realistic personalities of the sisters. As their relationship develops, they appeal to readers as much for their flaws as their strengths.” And I have to say, word to the “breathless” and to the rich character development in this novel. Gardner really keeps you on your toes and manages to imbue the boisterous action with a lot of heart in the way of the sisters’ relationship, keeping you emotionally-invested in Storm’s journey. And Storm, I tell ya, is some kind of heroine. She’s intrepid and enterprising and full of chutzpah. And she’s flawed, which makes her brave attempts to save her family even more engaging and moving. And you can add this story to your growing pile (should you happen to have one) of stories-that-skewer-the-princess-stereotype, since . . . well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but none of the girls bat their eyelashes at any of the men or young boys (including Kit, the mysterious boy with the iced heart, who seemingly works for DeWilde and has it really bad for Aurora).

And I must add that the book’s closing is quite touching in spots, what with Storm’s difficult lessons learned the hard way (fortunately, Gardner never makes it too heavy-handed), not the least of which is that “{i}t is easy to be corrupted, particularly by something that offers our heart’s desire.” Yet, she also learns the value of a gift given freely, with “total and unconditional love.” And, even though she makes it back to Eden End (not too much of a Big, Bad Spoiler to tell you that), her heart still longs to be wild:

A sudden terrible, shameful thought swept over Storm, making her flush with embarrassment, even though she was quite alone. Perhaps she had actually preferred being out in the world pitting her wits against the wolves and Dr. DeWilde to being safe and sound. The adventure had made her feel important. It had made her feel certain of her place and role within the family. She thought of the terror of being lost in the woods and being alone in the town and wondered wearily why it was that being lost had seemed so much more like being found.

Yeah, this made me love her even more. And this is not the only element of the novel’s close that hints rather boldly at a coming sequel (well, there’s the pretty obvious “The End?” for one). I will eagerly await it.

* * * * * * *

* (Just one of my favorite lines from the book, as Storm is, in the book’s opening, “happily picking the scab off her left knee — the result of a tree climbing accident the week before,” while reading a “mildewed copy of fairytales . . .” It made me laugh out loud. Is it just me? I suppose I am fascinated by a good scab) . . .

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6 comments to ““There were few things more pleasurable than a cracking version of Hansel and Gretel and
a good scab.” *”

  1. Oooh. Color me jealous. I started reading this one in the bookstore yesterday and now I’ve got an itch I can’t scratch. Silly slow library purchasing system. Me want.


  2. Oh, my gosh, this book sounds FANTASTIC! And I’m mightily curious how on earth she fits in Touching the Void. That alone would make me buy it.

    What a great and intriguing review! Another sale!


  3. I’ve already requested it from my local library. Thanx for the great review.


  4. Why, I’m glad you all like this review. Please report back, and tell me what you think after you read it. I really enjoyed it and eagerly anticipate a sequel.


  5. I got to read this book for the Cybils last November – *thoroughly* enjoyed it (though I donated my copy to the library) and look foward to the sequel next year…

    (And laughed out loud at the PP reference – very, very clever !)


  6. I have to add this to my list of books to read since I’m compelled to read all retold fairy tales.


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