The Grimm Legacy
Elizabeth has always felt a special affinity for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Following the death of her mother, her father married a woman with two daughters. While her stepfamily isn’t exactly evil, Elizabeth feels like an outsider in her own home. Worse, the financial situation with her new family means she has to go to a new school and take on an after-school job. When her history teacher recommends her for a job at the New-York Circulating Material Repository, Elizabeth hopes this will be her chance to earn some cash and make new friends.
The New-York Circulating Material Repository is a library for objects, where researchers come to look at tea sets and shoes. It even has items from historical figures, like a wig once worn by Marie Antoinette. But the library’s most valuable items are locked in a vault that only the most trusted employees get to access. Rumor has it that the Grimm Collection contains the actual, magical objects from the Grimms’ tales. As strange things start happening around the library, Elizabeth discovers that the objects are not only real, but that someone is stealing them.
THE GRIMM LEGACY is Polly Shulman’s second book for young adults. Her first, ENTHUSIASM, is about a girl whose best friend is obsessed with Jane Austen. It features the attempts of teen girls to sort out the puzzle of romantic love using the works of Austen as their guide. As you might imagine, there are not many opportunities to recreate 19th-century romance for 21st-century girls. ENTHUSIASM is about the place between fiction and actual experience, the way stories form our expectations, and the hilarious and heartbreaking ways those expectations can go awry.
At first glimpse, THE GRIMM LEGACY may not seem like it has much in common with ENTHUSIASM. Using objects from the Grimm Collection, Elizabeth and her friends must determine who has been stealing from the library. This is a story where the seven-league boots and the magical mirror from Snow White are real objects coming into collision with the everyday world. But like her previous book, THE GRIMM LEGACY deals with the expectations that stories give us for the way things should turn out in our everyday lives. When Elizabeth’s history teacher first asks her about her interest in the historical Brothers Grimm, she responds that she has always loved fairy tales because they seem so realistic.
“What I mean is, all the terrible things that happen in fairy tales seem real. Or not real, but genuine. Life is unfair and the bad guys keep winning and good people die. But I like how that’s not always the end of it. Like when the mother dies and turns into a tree and keeps helping her daughter, or when the boy who everybody thinks is an idiot figures out how to outwit the giant. Evil is real, but so is good. They always say fairy tales are simplistic, black and white, but I don’t think so. I think they’re complicated. That’s what I like about them.”
It is the exploration of these assumptions about stories and narrative structures that makes THE GRIMM LEGACY a pleasure to read. Instead of being satisfied with a ride on a magic carpet, or a meal from a table that sets itself, the novel addresses the complexity of the fairy tales, the objects in them, and the way they are used. Shulman provides some interesting twists and turns to what easily could be a straightforward story of magical items running amok. The most fascinating parts of the book are not the objects themselves, but the ways in which people use them. Seven-league boots become an addictive answer to the pressures of time in a busy adolescent’s life. The Magic Mirror provides more harm in its caustic answers than good in its ability to tell only the truth. And the prices with which the objects are borrowed --- one’s sense of direction or firstborn child --- are almost so terrible it seems a wonder that people would borrow them at all.
Stories operate under their own internal logic, and Shulman knows this, too, whether it’s the affinities that the library pages have for certain objects, or their ability to discern between the magical objects and those that are fake. The temptation with such a large magical arsenal is to use everything at once, and in this, Shulman shows some restraint. When one of the other pages loads up on magical items to help them on their quest, Elizabeth warns, “You know how fairy tales work. They punish the greedy and reward the restrained.” Likewise, one senses that there are worlds behind the Grimm Collection, possibilities for tales as infinite as the seemingly limitless archives. I couldn’t help but wonder how many drafts of this novel the author went through, or how many storylines were abandoned along the way. Wisely, Shulman sticks to just one.
Whether she returns to the Grimm Collection for her next book or keeps mining the vast treasure trove of literature for its relevance to young lives, I’m always interested to see what Shulman writes next.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on July 8, 2010
The Grimm Legacy
- Publication Date: July 7, 2011
- Genres: Fantasy
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Puffin
- ISBN-10: 0142419044
- ISBN-13: 9780142419045