Tender Morsels is a retelling of the Brothers Grimm story “Snow White and Rose Red” but with a feminist twist. There isn’t much longing by women for rescue by a man in this book, and in fact princely males are few and far between. But more than that, for the most part the women are self-sufficient, and while some women do long for physical affirmation, one guesses that if they explored lesbianism they would be just fine. However, the author is toppling enough fairy castles as it is, and no Happily Ever After takes place on the Isle of Lesbos.
Since the story does follow the Grimm tale so closely, I would recommend that would-be readers of this book begin with a short version of the fairy tale you can read online. There is much in the story that seems inexplicable otherwise, and furthermore it will add to the appreciation of how the author has changed the story.
Lanagan’s story starts out more violently than the fairy tale, no doubt to justify the feminist turn. (The U.K.’s Guardian calls it “a dark and shocking reworking of the Snow White and Rose Red fairytale” before noting that it won the World Fantasy Award for best novel.) The mother of the two girls is not a widow in Tender Morsels. Rather, Liga Longfield, a fourteen-year-old girl, lives alone with her father who rapes and beats her repeatedly. He is the father of her first daughter Branza.
Mercifully, the father is killed (or indeed, he would have had Liga abort the baby, as she had to do with two others, thanks to his having paid Annie, a local witch, for abortive powders). But Liga’s life does not improve as she had thought it would. Boys in the village, seeing that she is unmarried but with a child, take her to be “a slut,” and gang-rape her, also abusing her much in the process.
In despair and fear of further attacks, Liga tries to kill herself and Branza (not yet knowing she is pregnant from the gang rape). But a glowing magical being takes her away instead to a parallel world that is Liga’s version of heaven. The boys who raped her are not there; in fact, all of the men are barely present at all, and the women are friendly, accepting, and generous. And Liga’s second child, Urdda, is born.
Branza (“Snow White”) and Urdda (“Rose Red”) have very different personalities and dispositions, but they also both seem like pretty normal girls. Liga stays fairly zoned out in her “heaven,” content that she does not have to obsess over protecting herself and her children. The three of them go about their lovely, quiet existence, until incursions from the real world begin to occur. One is by an irascible dwarf, who comes and goes and is finally eliminated by a bear, another creature who has started to appear in Liga’s world.
The first bear they see is actually Davit Ramstrong, a caring and gentle young man from parallel reality who befriends the little family in his guise as a bear. He goes back to his world and a second bear, another boy from Liga’s original town – Teasel Wurledge – arrives, who is not so innocuous. But although he eats the dwarf, he does not hurt any of the women. (Before being consumed, the dwarf tried to convince the bear to eat the young girls instead of him, claiming they were “tender morsels” the bear would like better.) He does try to have sex with Branza, but she rebuffs him and then he too, leaves.
Urdda, now age 14, loved having the companionship of the bears, and longs to see what else is in this magical other place. She manages to follow Teasel back to his world, and she begins to live among them. She gets a job as witch Annie’s assistant. It is frightening at first in the real world: she can’t figure out why everything was so similar, and yet so different:
“And when [what she saw] had exhausted her by not assembling into any kind of sense, she raised her gaze to the familiar stars, and to the cheese-round moon, rough-faced and impersonal, coasting along the cloud-streaks above the black trees.”
Eventually she understood that the other world, where she was born, was her mother’s heaven:
“It is the world as my mother would have wanted it, for us all to be safe in, her and Branza and me…It is quite like here, only simpler, with all the cruel people taken out, all the rudeness and suddenness, and much of the noise and bustle.”
There was no alcohol or currency or poverty either, in this more perfect world.
Urdda explains this to the sorceress, Miss Dance, who originally trained Annie, and who complies with Urdda’s request to bring her mother and Branza out from Liga’s heaven also, to be with her. Miss Dance agrees; she is critical of Liga for her overprotectiveness, charging that the girls have not been able to learn how to cope with and overcome adversity, but I am not inclined to agree. Why would Liga have thought they couldn’t always stay in her heaven?
Liga is very afraid at first to be back in reality, but even Liga had grown restless with perfection. She found she wanted to be “seen and known and some way understood” by a man who didn’t want to hurt her, but perhaps was kind and loving like the first bear had been.
All of them have to learn to deal with the real world and all its aleatory cruelty, as well as its occasional bliss. But they have had no practice, so it will not come easily.
Discussion: Generally I don’t read fairy tales. One reason is certainly that their message is so patriarchal. But Lanagan eliminates that problem.
Another reason I tend to eschew fairy tales, however, is that they are loaded with symbols and subliminal meanings that I don’t always understand. And yet I got caught up in the poignant story of these three women; it is a story that pokes up through the fantastical elements like the first crocuses in spring.
But some of the symbolism seems so central, it can’t be ignored. The bears get the most attention in this retelling. In general, bears can be said to represent nature, coexistence with nature, desires, drives, and the latent beast in all living things.
In this story, the bears and their cares play a large role. The first male bear responds to the openness and trust of the family of women, and tries to be nurturing in return, although it is clear to him and others that he is just holding his bestiality at bay. The second bear makes much less of an attempt to domesticate his bestial urges, and apparently has a very large male member he can put to use when his size and strength have gotten him the female of his choice. Female bears thus caught have little recourse to intercourse, but when Branza is faced with the potential of rape, somehow she has the wherewithal to escape. This excellent outcome suggests Branza did learn something from living in “heaven” after all.
There is some lovely writing in this book. To give just one example of many:
“The last blue of evening, close around us, shielded us from eyes, and yet some stars winked there and were festive also and who could mind their watching? And moths flew soft and silver. The stars silvered them, I guessed… they were low like a mist, the moths, like a dancing mist, large and small like snow wafting on a breeze, as if the very air were so alive that it had burst into these creatures, taken wing and fluttered in all these different directions.”
The ending is interesting because it is not ambiguous, but still can be interpreted in one of two very different ways. One would be that it was a sad ending, because it did not end in the traditional way (i.e., with a woman/damsel “saved by the right man/prince”). The other interpretation would be that it was a very good ending because it requires that a woman learn to love herself and her life without a man. I.e., as Lanagan states on her blog, she does see the more feminist ending as positive – it’s just not the one we associate with Cinderella and the like (up through and including “Pretty Woman,” in which the Julia Roberts character gets rescued by a handsome, rich man on a white horse bearing a lance made out of roses).
Feminism really informs much of this book, from designating the women as “tender morsels” to showing the men as exhibiting “boofhead male behaviour” (See the interview with Margo Lanagan in Clarkesworld Magazine).
Evaluation: This is a most interesting and thought-provoking retelling of a fairy tale. It didn’t quite win my heart as much as the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment on “Rocky and Bullwinkle” but I loved the idea of upending the usual patriarchal assumptions. To me, much of it was sad, and not because no knight on horseback rescued Liga, but because of all the pain she endured in the beginning, and the shame she felt at the end. I just wanted Liga to be happy!
Nota Bene: Although there is considerable “sex and violence” in the first fifty pages of this ostensible YA book, it is depicted as obliquely as possible. Later on, there is more sex that is not so unambiguous, but it takes place between bears …. In the Clarkesworld Magazine interview referenced above, Ms. Lanagan has this to say about the controversy over this book’s content:
“I know the parts of life that I like to explore in fiction are often the parts that many people don’t like to even look at, let alone spend time wondering about, so I have to expect the occasional knee-jerk reaction.
But really, compared to the movies and just your normal day’s worth of free-to-air television, my stories are quite tame. I sometimes think it’s just easier to attack a book, because it isn’t backed up by so much money and celebrity power, than it is to complain about a movie or TV show you think is showing sex or violence too graphically. The movie/TV powers-that-be tend to shrug and say, ‘Well, no one’s forcing you to watch,’ but the same rule rarely seems to be quoted in relation to books—their simple presence, their availability, say, in a school library, is enough to have some people *cough*Ms Palin*cough* foaming at the mouth.”
For links to other modern interpretations of Snow White and Rose Red, click here.