‘We stared at each other, fairy tale magic unfolding around us,’ reports Year 9 narrator Jessie, some ten pages before her story ends, though we’re not talking Fairy Tale Happy Endings here. Mr Hunter, (‘the nearest thing to a handsome prince we have at school’ and Jessie loves his after-shave too) has been introducing the class to Unhappy Endings by way of the Grimms’ gory The Robber Bride. The novel began with an early draft of Jessie’s response to Mr H’s assignment: Write a Modern Fairy Tale. Nuanced and darker warnings characterise her final version which closes the narrative.
Things start manageably enough. Times are hard for the family financially, but Jessie has loving parents, though she misses her Dad who has been forced to leave the village to find work in France. She is very close to her Gran, as she had been to her cousin Fran, though things are a bit tense between them at the moment. She also has a close friend in campaigning Kate, whose disability – she is in a wheelchair – is perhaps one of the driving reasons for her energy. Kate is already winning national honours in her age group in the sitting volleyball squad.
Several events set the story in motion. Gran buys a puppy – a white German Shepherd – but soon afterwards she begins to make anxious, irrational comments which alarm her family. Jessie rather likes a lad at school called Ben who shares her love for animals. She also likes Yasmin, an Afghan refugee in her class. There are foreign fruit pickers in the village and clearly they are responsible – say some – for the brick which crashes through the window of Mr Gupta’s shop and for the ugly treatment of a young gardener with Down’s Syndrome. In school, alongside the fairy tale project, they’re doing the Nazis in History; this leads to the plot’s major catalyst, the arrival from the States of Ben’s grandmother who shares her experiences as a concentration camp survivor in a History lesson. She warns, It mustn’t happen again. To emphasise the point, the book’s cover asks, below the title, Is what happened then happening now?
Gran and her white puppy in the present day are, it turns out, closely linked to events in wartime Dachau and, dramatically, to Ben’s grandmother. The coincidences required to make this connection, it has to be said, might cause a Victorian novelist to hesitate; but maybe that’s where we must allow for that ‘fairy tale magic’. Anne Booth sets the brutal practices of the Nazis alongside contemporary prejudices towards immigrants, asylum seekers, the disabled, anyone weaker or less popular than yourself in school. Her Author’s Note confirms, “I was very aware that it is very difficult to stand up to bullies, especially when they are in power”.
There is an evangelical earnestness here which might not attract some readers. The cast of characters may seem to be too carefully chosen to point a moral; and the plot – especially its coincidences – contrived to serve the author’s didactic ends. The overt message may well be self-defeating for some, for shifts in adolescent thinking are usually best discovered obliquely. For other younger readers, the strongly felt, direct message may very well make its impact.