Book Review: The Secret of the Tattered Shoes – a compassionate re-telling of a difficult fairytale

by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi, Tiny Owl, 2019 (UK), 2020 (US)

I first noticed this book because of its exquisite artwork. Ehsan Abdollahi’s art is rich, lush, with almost touchable texture, made with a mixture of paper dolls and collage (more here), giving a haunting, magical quality to the whole book. The story is a re-telling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and features all the familiar aspects of the story, the trees of silver, gold and diamond, the boats across to the island, night after night of dancing. Night after night of young men drugged and punished with death. Because, like many fairytales, the Twelve Dancing Princesses is a curious mixture of the ethereally lovely and the callous. But unlike most re-tellings, this version neither ignores that aspect nor writes it out, but rises to meet it.

Our household wrestles with fairytales. I’ve discussed them here and here on this blog. Even our three-year old daughter who loves them – lives in one – is well aware of their difficult aspects. ‘Because a daddy doesn’t give his daughter away for some salad!‘ she says. I hasten to reassure her, ‘That would be crazy’, we say. With this book, the ending is satisfying in a human way.

The soldier is no longer a man arriving at a palace, hoping to marry a princess, but ‘weary from war’ ‘ears deafened by guns’. When so many children’s stories, including many we enjoy, feature battles and pirates and fighting – even if between good guys and bad guys, it’s a relief to have a story that doesn’t show conflict as the solution, but rather as a source of pain. The book doesn’t belabour it, but the trauma of war is there, including the soldier’s guilt over his own actions.

The soldier’s encounter with the princesses is framed by his meeting with a woman in the forest who brims with ‘light and life’. Jackie Morris’ language melds the direct narration of classic fairytales with touches of poetry and human feeling. The youngest princess brings the soldier the drugged wine with a ‘smile like frost on glass’. The illustrations and text together give the book a dreamy, otherworldly quality.

It’s the twist at the end that perfects this book for me. The princesses confess to their father and the king offers the soldier one of them in marriage. And the soldier refuses, refuses for their callousness – that they could let men die so they could keep their secret. He walks away, and on the endpapers we see him, almost in sillouette (my daughter’s favourite page), with the woman in the forest, surrounded by roses and fruit, the wealth of nature. Whether or not the princesses could properly be described as murderous in this story, I won’t try to analyse now. But for a fairytale character to reject a princess for her moral choices is refreshing.

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