Thursday, January 22, 2009

Morris Shortlist: A Curse Dark as Gold

A Curse Dark as Gold
Elizabeth C. Bunce
2008; Arthur Levine Books (Scholastic); 978-0-439-89576-7 (hardcover)

Summary: With the death of her father, Charlotte is now the miller of Stirwaters. For years, strange mischief has troubled the mill: machines stop working for no cause, accidents strike the people that are needed most, cloth is damaged or destroyed days before it is to be sold. Charlotte doesn't believe in superstitions or hexes or curses. But what if there is a curse on Stirwaters? And could it have something to do with the mysterious Jack Spinner, the man who has rescued Charlotte from disaster by spinning gold from straw or making fabric from scraps?

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: A blending of history and folktale.

In A Curse Dark as Gold, Bunce admirably combines two seemingly unrelated concepts: historical fact and oral fantasy. Based on the Name the Helper folktale concept, the most well-known version being Rumpelstiltskin, this novel sees to tell the story of the miller's daughter who manages to break the curse placed upon her. By setting the story at the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, we see a world where science is starting to overcome superstitions. Charlotte is a very practical woman, with little regard for the protection charms and talismans practiced in her village. But disregarding these methods, even though they make no scientific sense, nearly leads Charlotte to her doom. She gets drawn into the cycle that has repeated itself over and over through the years, ever since the incidents that caused the curse to be placed on Stirwaters. Yet it is still Charlotte's sense and practicality that allows her to break the curse, in a fusion of science and nature.

#2: The relentless pounding of doomsday.

"Slowly, as we watched, he drew out the straw and spun it -- spun it! As if it were a roving of wool! As the spindle bobbed and twirled, something -- I could not quite see what -- pulled out from the brown straw and through his knobby fingers, and where it should have gone onto the spindle, the finest strands of gleaming golden threads appeared. Around and around the spindle went, and the glitter of gold turned with it. I could not take my eyes away." (pg 97-98)
With Jack Spinner's first offer of assistance, the reader knows the eventual outcome of this story. Yet even before this moment, Charlotte has seemed set on the path towards a deep darkness. The novel, beginning with the death of her father, features calamity after catastrophe; moments of safety seem like the calm before the storm. Bunce achieves a pacing that never lets up, that keeps the reader turning the pages, wonder what strange fate will befall Charlotte and Stirwaters next. It's the kind of pacing that you typically see in horror movies, not in a historical fiction/fantasy novel. But it's this aspect of the novel that lends it an intriguing, contemporary feel. Fairy-tale retellings are quite common, but this one feels very modern thanks to its timing.

#3: The richness of village life and its people.

A Curse Dark as Gold features a vast array of supporting characters, from Mrs. Tom and Uncle Wheeler to Jack Spinner and Bill Penny. These people have various motives and actions that impact the story, helping Charlotte or crossing her. For a small village, Shearing is lively and active; one feels that even if the mill did fail, the people who live in Shearing would find a way to stay together, to preserve their homes. Yet for most of the novel, it's only the reader who senses this; Charlotte doesn't seem to realize just how strong people are when they stand together. She tries to take everything on her shoulders, keeping secrets from her sister, her husband, and as best she can from the village. Yet at the climax of the novel, Charlotte realizes that these people give her the strength to face Jack Spinner and save her son. Richly-drawn characters help make this realization seem honest and obvious, not contrived or cliched.

A Curse Dark as Gold is a novel that is not for the faint-hearted. Full of danger and disappointment, it fully presents how our lives hover on the point of disaster. Yet it also makes clear how much hope there really is in life. Bunce portrays this dark, scary world with a great degree of historical accuracy, yet also infuses it with a simple, strong aspect of support and courage. For teens interested in historical fiction, fairy-tale retellings, or "sad books", this novel will draw them in.


Janssen said...

I thought this book was extraordinary. I'll be curious to see what she writes next!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the lovely review! I'm delighted you enjoyed it (and I loved "the relentless pounding of doomsday.")


melissa said...

Janssen: It is certainly a very accomplished book!

Elizabeth: I'm so pleased you enjoyed my review! I found so much to admire in A Curse Dark as Gold.