Turgeon portrays the more adult shades of two familiar fairytales, blending the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White. The images are familiar, the romance seedier and the motives of characters viewed through the perspective of consequences.
The backstory here is one I remember from childhood, but never put a name to, the woman whose husband climbed over a witch’s wall to gather the only thing she would eat, that she craved beyond all others. While I remember it as radishes, Turgeon names it as rapunzel. In any case, the husband is caught by the witch, who makes him promise his first-born child in order to keep supplying his wife with that which she craves.
This is one of the stories Rapunzel learns in childhood. The other is of her own origin as the daughter of poor, indifferent parents, according to her guardian, Mathena Gothel. After taking the small girl into the forest, she raises her in the ruins of an old castle, including the famed turret where Rapunzel lets down her storied golden tresses for her lover.
Mathena is indeed a witch, formerly living at the castle as a favorite of the old king and queen—until she is banished. Now she casts spells for village women and uses her vast knowledge of plants for healing. She teaches Rapunzel these skills, along with hunting and harvesting. The girl is content and by the age of fifteen stunningly beautiful, her bedroom high in the tower where she can look out over the forest. Mathena’s familiar is a falcon, Brune, who flies about freely, like a beloved pet, though one whose nature it is to kill her prey. Such is the scene in the forest: Mathena, Brune and Rapunzel gathering plants, tending their home, taking care of the needs of those who come to their door. Of course, all that changes with the arrival of a handsome prince.
Like other fairy tales, this one is filled with darkness, blood and death, the underbelly of the magic that overtakes Rapunzel when she first meets Prince Josef and falls hopelessly in love. It is Mathena who locks Rapunzel in the tower when Josef returns to claim her, his duties calling him to marry in order to keep the kingdom from war. From the beginning, Rapunzel is the light, Mathena the dark. The affection between them unravels in the fullness of time and the harsh truths Rapunzel learns once the widower Josef, now king, comes back to claim her as his queen. By now well versed in the vagaries of fate, Rapunzel is quick to spot the inconsistencies of what Mathena has taught her and what reality tells her is the truth.
Snow White is added to the mix as the young daughter of King Josef, the image of her dead mother, with black hair and ruby red lips in contrast to Rapunzel’s magnificent long blonde locks. Another interesting touch: Turgeon gives Rapunzel’s hair a sensitivity that allows her to “read” the emotions of those it touches, from Josef’s love to Snow White’s mourning for her mother, not to mention the thought of the ladies-in-waiting who profess their love yet seethe with jealousy and gossip. As queen, Rapunzel is thrust into the public eye, the townspeople, those same women who trekked to the forest for potions, whispering the dreaded word witch.
Like others of its ilk, this fairy tale provides a lesson other than happily ever after. Rapunzel, now far removed from childish beliefs, faces the consequences of her blindness and her willingness to be guided by Mathena in all things. Having grown to love Snow White—an affection that is reciprocated—she saves the girl from certain death after an act of bitter revenge, applies a harsh justice on her betrayer and fades from the story that Snow White might fulfill her own fate.
While not dominant, the politics of the haves and have-nots pepper the kingdom where Rapunzel takes her place at Josef’s side; the handsome king is unfortunately not a good steward of his flock and prone to acquisition rather than compassion. Turgeon’s Rapunzel appeals to the modern sensibilities of self-awareness and personal responsibility, not to mention female empowerment. No shrinking violet, Rapunzel embraces her potential, her tresses telling her that her dear Snow White has the courage to match her own.