Both sisters read and review the same book, a fairy tale retelling.
This quarter, marking our fourth book club title, we are discussing Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. We've already shared our individual reviews (you can find Mary's here and Elizabeth's here), and now it's time for us to respond to the six questions we cover with each book club discussion. Normally, we have an actual conversation which we record to share in both video and transcript form. However, as Elizabeth has been ill, this month we've each written up our answers separately instead.
Remember that you can join in this discussion, whether by commenting here or by joining our Enchanted Garden Book Club Facebook group!
Mary & Elizabeth Discuss the Book
In what ways is the retelling similar to the original fairy tale? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
I’ll be mainly comparing this to Hansel & Gretel, as that seemed to be the main inspiration. This wasn’t a straightforward retelling, so it’s harder to compare. But there are some similar themes.
One major shared theme is poverty. The family situation starts much the same. Like Hansel and Gretel, Harriet starts out in poverty. The children are sent out into the woods/city because the families can not care for them.
Another big part is the lure of gingerbread, whether edible house or homemade. And the children are fattened up, the girls working in the kitchens. The house itself may not be literal gingerbread, but still retains the look:
The house [they] worked in was cinnamon-colored and had a sugar-dusted effect to its roof and windowsills.
As Mary said, this isn’t a straightforward retelling of the original fairy tale. However, it does share lot of similarities--particularly in terms of themes.
The country of Druhastrana is a magical place; it is filled with and characterized by the sort of magical elements typical of fairy tales. The gingerbread itself is, in a way, magical as well, and its alluring and addictive quality is very reminiscent of the witch's gingerbread house of the original tale. Interestingly, though, there is no clear 'witch' character here to serve as antagonist. The different elements that make up the witch are divided out amongst characters: Harriet (and the women who came before her in her family) makes the magical, alluring gingerbread whose appeal hides a dangerous/inedible core (the grain that, at first, was blighted, and later, when Harriet made it in London, was poisonous specifically to her daughter due to her celiac disease). Gretel's mother, Clio Kercheval, fills the role of the wicked woman who, while technically feeding the children she's 'saved' from starvation back home, is also taking advantage of their labor and fattening them up in order to turn them into an item of consumption. In the original tale, the witch quite literally plans to eat Hansel, as she has eaten other children in the past. Here, is it a more capitalistic 'consumption' that is occurring, as Clio makes the 'gingerbread girls' into an appealing treat for those who pay to visit the gingerbread house where she has effectively imprisoned them. Clio also very much shares in common with the witch of the fairy-tale a 'false friendliness' intended to lure children in to her control.
There are other elements in Gingerbread that mimic the devices and themes of "Hansel and Gretel": it is easy to become lost in the countryside of Druhastrana, and the markers used to navigate (such as Gretel's well) are reminiscent of the pebbles and breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel leave in the story. The cycles of famine experienced by the woodcutter's family in the original tale and by the Lee family (and their neighbors) in Gingerbread are another point of clear similarity; although, Oyeyemi makes it clear that by the time of Harriet's childhood the scarcity experienced is a false one brought on by the demands of the capitalist owner of the farms being too great a burden for the farmers to bear.
When Harriet 'escapes' Clio, we see another similarity with the original tale: Hansel and Gretel took gems from the witch's house, solving the problem of their family's poverty; Harriet finally receives the payment owed to her by Clio Kercheval.
While there are certainly other points of similarity, I'll sum up by saying that, in short, both "Hansel and Gretel" and Gingerbread are tales which deal with the idea of children being sent away due to an inability to feed them at home; who are lured into a gingerbread house by a woman who seems kind, at first, but actually intends to 'fatten up' and 'consume' the children while taking advantage of their labor; and who escape to return to their family with 'treasure' they acquired as a result of their misadventure with this woman.
How are the two stories different? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
The stories are very different beasts, and more different than the same. In the points above, the setting is still European (Czech adjacent instead of German), but more modern. The children leave for the city instead of the woods, sent off from their parents, yes, but for a better life, to work and send funds back home. They are fattened up so they don’t look so gaunt, for PR rather than to be eaten.
As for the characters, we have Harriet instead of Hansel, and Gretel is a friend and not a sibling. Gretel also doesn’t go to the Gingerbread house with the rest of the girls. Gretel influences the story but is not the main focus of it. I wish she had been more front and center.
Another character change is the parents. Harriet leaves the Gingerbread House and is reunited with her mother rather than her father. And much happens to the two after that point that long leaves the Hansel and Gretel tale behind.
And there are no ducks. In the original Grimm tale, Hansel and Gretel end up riding a duck one by one over the lake to return home. I had forgotten this part of the tale, and it seems rarely recreated in retellings.
“Here are two children, mournful very,
Seeing neither bridge nor ferry;
Take us upon your white back,
And row us over, quack, quack!”
There are certainly many differences between Gingerbread and "Hansel and Gretel"--arguably more differences than there are similarities. The most obvious difference is the way that Oyeyemi has played with the characters: Harriet Lee is the primary protagonist here; there is no 'Hansel and Gretel' sibling pair. Gretel Kercheval, while important to the story, isn't the main focus of it. In a way, she seems to fill a role more similar to the gingerbread of both tales than to the fairy-tale character after which she's named. Gretel is oddly alluring to Harriet, from the first moment she meets her in 'her' well. Gretel is literally a magical figure in Gingerbread (a changeling); she is Harriet's friend, but also a guide for and influence upon her.
While I agree with Mary that the white duck the children use to ferry themselves, one at a time, across a large body of water to reach home in the original tale is absent in Gingerbread, it is true that Harriet and her mother cross a large body of water to get from Druhastrana to their new home with the Kercheval family in England. There's also a more mystical kind of gap Oyeyemi inserts between Druhastrana and the rest of the world, making Harriet's home country a mysterious, mythical place to such an extent that her daughter, Perdita, is convinced she can magically travel there via gingerbread-induced dreams.
The portion of Harriet Lee's life story which takes place when she is within Druhastrana most closely resembles the "Hansel and Gretel" tale. The portion of the story of Gingerbread which takes place outside of Druhastrana is the strongest departure from the tale--representing entirely new story which, while playing with some fairy-tale themes and elements, is wholly unique, and that wholly unique story is the most significant portion of the book.
Did the retelling retain enough of the original to be satisfying? Why or why not?
As a retelling, no, it wasn’t satisfying. It wasn’t a bad book, but it was too disjointed for me. If you wanted purely a Hansel and Gretel story, I would look elsewhere. This took elements, but was very much its own thing. Though I don’t know of any good book recreations that aren’t just children stories, so if you know of a YA or Adult retelling of this tale I’d love to hear of it.
If I were looking for a straightforward retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" (or of "The Gingerbread Man"), I wouldn't look to Gingerbread to find it. It is, however, a book that feels steeped in fairy-tale in the way that it is told, in the magical elements it contains, and the themes it explores. Oyeyemi didn't so much retell any particular tale as take inspiration from them to weave her own modern fairy-tale story.
What did the retelling do better than the original?
I did like that no parents were sending out their children into the woods just to be lost and abandoned and starved to death. At least the parents were more hopeful for their children’s future in this book. Even if they were blind to what actually happened to said children.
Oyeyemi doesn't shy away from the core problem that is the impetus for the tale of Hansel and Gretel: a hardworking family that quite simply cannot afford to feed their children, and so must send them away. She takes what is almost a toss-away setup for the original tale and contextualizes it into an indictment of capitalism and the wealthy's exploitation of the work of the poor, and also the way that the poor in some sense allow themselves to be exploited in the vague hope that one day they might be one of the few on top. Doing so made all of the elements that Gingerbread does share with "Hansel and Gretel" far more impactful for me.
What gaps did the retelling fill in that were missing in the original?
The villain in the original Grimm tale was defeated mainly due to her horrible eyesight and her stupidity (sticking her head in the oven). The “witch” in Gingerbread was Clio, who took advantage of and profited off the children, and was far too clever to be tricked.
The sending away of the children is possibly more relatable in Gingerbread than in the original tale. Many renditions of "Hansel and Gretel" paint the mother as evil/selfish and the father as a push-over, in the Grimm tale even putting the former into the 'wicked stepmother' category and conveniently killing her off while the children are away. However, Gingerbread presents a much more nuanced explanation of the extreme desperation of the parents who send their girls off to the city with Clio Kercheval.
It is also, as Mary noted, true that Clio Kercheval is a more realistic villain than the witch of the Grimm tale. Her need to preserve her reputation (avoiding bad press for her businesses) is what allows Harriet to escape her clutches--and Harriet only manages that with Gretel's help, as well. The only sense in that she crawls into her own oven is a metaphoric one, in that her promise of real payment to the girls is what allows Harriet to force her hand to give over the actual currency owed to her.
Any other thoughts on the story?
Going beyond Hansel and Gretel, Gingerbread explored themes of consumerism, poverty/wealth, and family. The landowners are thriving while those who live on and work the land are struggling to get by. The girls are manipulated into child labor so they won’t be a burden on their families, and they can send money back home. The girls are taken advantage of, made into plump pretty things to parade about and show Clio’s generosity in helping those in need, and to get customers to buy more gingerbread.
I was heartbroken when Harriet went to pay with her saved money, only to find out it wasn't real. The girls didn’t even get to leave the house and explore the city. They really were slaves, like Gretel was in the original story.
Once Harriet and her mother moved in with the other Kercheval’s, they may have been better off, but they were still a charity case.
I felt there were so many unanswered questions about Gretel. Is she really a changeling? Does she age? Is she Perdita (an odd theory I wouldn’t have thought of if Harriet hadn’t straight up and asked it of her daughter). What happened when Perdita went to visit and got the ring?
The other story mentioned as inspiration was The Gingerbread Man. That one is such a short tale, and I found little to compare. There was magical gingerbread, and in this book’s case instead of a baked good coming to life we did have dolls given life.
I haven't fully thought it through, but I wonder if there's some argument to be made that the Kercheval family (Clio, Gretel, and the Kercheval men) are an embodiment of the magical gingerbread that the Lees bake. In that way, they might be a take on the folktale of "The Gingerbread Man" or "The Gingerbread Boy." The gingerbread, while appealing to them, doesn't have any magical effect upon them, which might be taken as a hint that they have a unique relationship with gingerbread. In the folktale, people chase after the living gingerbread boy--obsessed with catching him. In Gingerbread, Harriet finds the Kerchevals (especially Gretel and Kercheval boys) arguably as mysteriously alluring as others find her gingerbread.
Overall, I found Gingerbread to be a very interesting and compelling book, but certainly not an easy read. There are two reasons I had difficulty getting through it:
First, Oyeyemi's writing is dense. This isn't a criticism of it; most of the best literature is incredibly dense. It did, however, mean that Gingerbread wasn't the light read that most fairy-tale novels tend to be; it required a lot of focus and thoughtful attention to properly appreciate it.
Second, the themes Oyeyemi addresses in this novel are really difficult, often incredibly uncomfortable, themes to tackle. Although I think it was meant to end on a positive/hopeful note, I found Gingerbread to largely be dark, depressing, and in my case at times even triggering for my PTSD when it touched on Harriet's relationship with Gabriel Kercheval.
Sometimes, what is most difficult to read ends up being the most rewarding or important to read, and I think that this is the case with Gingerbread. I wouldn't recommend it to someone looking for a fairy-tale retelling or a light read, but I would recommend it to someone with an appreciation for fairy-tales who is looking for a really good piece of literature to really take their time studying.