IT’S BACK! The Dare is back!
Years ago, we had a regular feature called The Dare (and its sibling, the Guest Dare) in which we dared each other to read books outside of our comfort zone. For no real reason, we stopped doing those until we decided to bring it back this year. So without further ado: The Dare 2.0.
Today, the dare is a little bit different. This time, in a true testament of strength, we’ve both agreed to review a category completely outside of our comfort zones: nonfiction. Yesterday, Thea reviewed Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (not a great reading experience, unfortunately). Today, Ana reviews Gossip of the Forest by Sara Maitland (about the intertwined relationship between fairy tales and actual forests).
Author: Sara Maitland
Genre: Nonfiction, Nature, Fairytales
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication Date: November 2012
Hardcover: 256 Pages
Fairytales are one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, and forests one of our most ancient and primal landscapes. Both evoke a similar sensation in us — we find them beautiful and magical, but also spooky, sometimes horrifying.
In this fascinating book, Maitland argues that the two forms are intimately connected: the mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forests were both the background and the source of fairytales. Yet both forests and fairy stories are at risk and their loss deprives us of our cultural lifeblood. Maitland visits forests through the seasons, from the exquisite green of a beechwood in spring, to the muffled stillness of a snowy pine wood in winter. She camps with her son Adam, whose beautiful photographs are included in the book; she takes a barefoot walk through Epping Forest with Robert Macfarlane; she walks with a mushroom expert through an oak wood, and with a miner through the Forest of Dean. Maitland ends each chapter with a unique, imaginitive re-telling of a fairystory.
Written with Sara’s wonderful clarity and conversational grace, Gossip from the Forest is a magical and unique blend of nature writing, history and imaginative fiction.
Standalone or series: Standalone book
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): print
Why the Dare: I think this dare has more to do with the reviewing of rather than the reading of this Gossip from the Forest because given its premise and connection to fairy tale retellings why would I not want to read it? So the dare here for me is: HOW do I even approach the book when reviewing it? In any case this was the perfect opportunity to read non-fiction something that I have been wanting to do for a while now but haven’t had the time – the dare allowed me to make the time.
I first heard about Gossip From The Forest when I attended a panel on fairy tales at a local university and Sara Maitland was one of the panellists. She talked about Gossip From The Forest and I was immediately intrigued by its concept: there are 12 chapters in the book, one for a different forest in England and Scotland. Each chapter features an essay with observations of the author’s visit to one of those forests as well as one fairy tale retelling that closes the chapter. The idea is to (loosely) investigate the connections between the “woods” and fairy tales and the way that how forests are central to European fairy tales (much like, for example, the desert is central to stories of The Arabian Nights).
Gossip From The Forest is an interesting blend of travelogue, essay and fairy tale retellings and what strikes me the most is how this is at once a very personal, intimate book that follows the author’s trip to the forests (often accompanied by a family member or a friend) as well as a thought-provoking exploration of wider issues such as child rearing, history, feminism, politics, education, preservation and ecology.
There is also an interesting dynamics between the local and the general – each forest has its own historical past which often relates to a wider political context. It was all really interesting for a history buff like me but most of the data the author talks about comes across as more anecdotes than facts. Although there are notes at the end of the book these are extrapolations on the author’s assertions rather than further information or bibliographic back-up. I only mention this because I feel it is important to make a special note that scientific rigour is not the point of the book. In fact, the author is very clear in disclosing the fact that hers are granted, educated but still meandering thoughts:
Suddenly I do not feel I have “proved” my thesis – that we have the stories we have because we are people whose roots are in the northern European forests – but this is because it is about a sort of knowledge that is not amenable to, not available to the sort of “proof” we have come to accept. It is an imaginative rather than a logical connection, and none the worse for that.
I felt the book was a success in what it sets out to do: it was thoughtful, interesting and elicited not only a strong sense of a particular place but also a sense that it is all connected. Each chapter was an absolute pleasure to read even when some the author’s ideas felt slightly out of place and time. For example I felt that there was a distinct feel emanating from the book that glorified tradition and vilified certain aspects of progress.
On the downside I felt terribly sad that most of the fairy tales retold were of Grimm’s tradition. I understood the author’s claim that the UK shares the same traditions and the Germanic backstory with those stories but I couldn’t help but to wonder about what kind of very local stories and folklore each particular location wouldn’t have. Of course the point is that the “very local” is connected to a widespread, shared tradition linked to forests. And what a shame that the photographs included in each chapter were not in colour – the black and white images did not add a lot to the book and I can only but imagine the difference that colour photos could have made to the overall feel of the book.
I have said all that but I have yet to say anything about the fairy tale retellings. I loved them. As much as I enjoyed reading about everything else, the fairy tale retellings were easily the best part of the book. They had the author’s own brand of twists and beautiful writing – sometimes poetic or funny, sometimes harsh and sad, often thought-provoking, always engaging. So we have Hansel and Gretel as adults, about 50 years later and still each dealing with the consequences of their ordeal; Rapunzel is from the stepmother’s (not really a witch) perspective as is Rumpelstiltskin’s (not the only villain in that story) .
The Seven Swan’s Sister opens with:
Once upon a time there was a young woman with a fierce integrity
And The Little Goose Girl ends on:
You are a sweet child. You are innocent, whatever happened, and you will be vindicated. You do not have to marry the Prince, though I hope you will want to one day. But no one will touch you until you ask them to. And no one in my kingdom, peasant or princess, will ever again have to marry a stranger. In your honor and always, women will marry if they choose, when they choose and where their hearts and their intelligence lead them. I promise”
And he kept that promise.
This was a brilliant choice of dare for me and I highly recommend Gossip From The Forest if you like fairy tales, nature and history.
Notable Quotes/Parts: The book OPENS with a thought provoking question about the way that the Oxford English Dictionary (and in fact most dictionaries), defines gossip by equating it with women’s idle talk with definite negative connotations when the origin of the word is anything but: the original meaning is that of close friend or a godparent. She says:
“This is one of my favorite examples of how the trivialising of women’s concerns distorts language. The Gossip of my title is the encouraging, private spiritual talk that we all want in times of trouble. Stories that are not idle; tales that are not trifling.”
Additional thoughts: This dare was a success – even if Thea didn’t particularly liked her book – and we want to read MOARS. So….we are open for non-fiction suggestions. Anything you have loved and think we NEED to read? Suggest away!
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Buy the Book:
(click on the links to purchase)