Into the Woods

by Lyn Gardner; ill. by Mini Grey

Random House, 2007

488 pages

I’ve written before about how much I love a good fairy tale reboot–and, more recently, about how interesting antiheroes can be. Into the Woods is a book that combines both, to inspiring effect.

Here’s the story: Storm Eden lives with her mother Zella, father Reggie, and sister Aurora on the family’s country estate. With Reggie constantly off on “explorations” and Zella too lazy to lift a finger, the family has burned through its substantial fortune, and Storm and Aurora are left trying to hold things together.

Well, Aurora is, anyway. She’s the dutiful older sister, a housekeeping whiz with wicked baking skillz. Storm, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about those things. She feels hurt by their parents’ neglect, hounded by Aurora’s attempts to homeschool her, and would rather spend her time making fireworks or exploring the forbidden woods outside their estate.

Then their mother dies giving birth to a third sister, Any, and their father deserts out of grief. On her deathbed, Zella gives Storm a battered tin pipe, cautioning her against using it except at great need. Storm thinks nothing of it (Zella always was a bit of a drama queen) until the local villain, Dr. DeWilde, shows up and tries to steal it.

The girls successfully escape, but only for a time. DeWilde eventually manages to kidnap Any, and Aurora and Storm set off on a perilous quest to rescue their baby sister.

Of course, one of my favorite things about this book are the fairy tale references. Gardner is incredibly witty with her reboots and revisions: Aurora (i.e., Sleeping Beauty) has a phobia of needles and uses it to great effect at the book’s final climax, the child-eating ogress (from “Rapunzel”) is really a sassy old lady who wants the townspeople to leave her alone, and Storm’s pipe turns out to do much more than lure children to their doom.

The plot is incredible, too. Gardner manages to produce a very long book that doesn’t lose focus or intensity for a moment. And she has the guts to opt for the hard ending, one that’s processed over two climaxes and 100-plus pages. I can imagine a neater way to do it, but only at the expense of character and story integrity .

As for inspiration . . . How about not one, but five, strong heroines? Take Aurora and Any for starters. Aurora begins rather weakly but learns to master fear and is a great encourager and planner, and Any is whip-smart, incredibly loyal, and fiercely principled. Then there’s Mother Collops, the independent, sassy old woman who teaches Storm what it really means to think for herself. And there’s Netta Truelove, the girls’ behind-the-scenes guide and the only townsperson to defy DeWilde to his face.

Now for Storm. She’s the book’s pitch-perfect antiheroine, self-righteous, irresponsible, and prone to unjustified venomous outbursts. I had to grow to like her over the course of the book, and she didn’t really gel with me until the final hundred pages. But thanks to her deep love for Any and her incredible courage, I found myself rooting for her more and more as the story progressed.

There’s just something awesome about a deeply flawed character who grows (but without become perfect) and accomplishes something of tremendous importance. I think the myth of perfection is one of the greatest challenges facing women and girls today. Airbrushed images of apparently flawless women are everywhere. Add the carefully curated lives we present to each other on places like Facebook and Pinterest, not to mention all the “aspirational” books and articles telling us how we could do things better, and we have the perfect recipe for paralysis, self-loathing, and assumed incompetence.

Storm is the perfect counterpoint to the perfection myth. She’s the kind of character who helps young girls lay a solid foundation of “It’s OK not to be perfect” and “I can do it” before they encounter the perfection myth full-force. Turn your weaknesses into strengths, stir them up with healthy dashes of love and courage, and you can make things happen. That’s a much better recipe for girls to savor.

For the Eden girls’ further adventures, read Out of the Woods (2010).

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