Donna Jo Napoli,
(Atheneum, 2004)

This is not your familiar, comfortable Cinderella story. There are no magic wands or pumpkin coaches, and happily ever after happens only in, well, fairy tales. Real life offers few of these sugar-spun fantasies, particularly for three unsupported women in a Ming dynasty Chinese village. Fourteen-year-old Xing Xing, her stepmother and her half-sister Wei Ping are each bound: socially, ideologically and financially. The physical, crippling binding of Wei Ping's feet is a metaphor for an encompassing system of patriarchal privilege. But in another sense of the word, to be bound is also to be heading towards something -- not so much a fate, as a rare and precious choice of fates.

That freedom of choice is the greatest of presents from Xing Xing's dead mother. She may (or may not) be incarnated as a giant white-and-red carp, in a pond near the potter's cave in which the three women continue to live with increasing poverty after the death of Xing Xing's father. The orphaned Xing Xing lives on her stepmother's charity, such as it is, as a virtual slave. Life isn't all bad, of course. Xing Xing finds joy in writing calligraphy and poetry into the sky, in visiting the beautiful carp, in the beauty of a painted pottery shard, and in the green dress and very special pair of slippers her mother secretly left behind for her.

These four women -- Xing Xing, her dead mother, her stepmother and Wei Ping -- and their relationships to each other are at the heart of the story. Napoli redraws Stepmother as an understandable, if not likable, figure who behaves as she does for very good reasons: ideology, jealousy and an anxiety for Wei Ping's and her own well-being, for which she is willing to sacrifice Xing Xing's. The psychological undercurrents, particularly the hint of tensions between Stepmother and Xing Xing's mother when they were both alive as the potter's two wives, drive and fill in the frame of the story. No effort is made to make a traditional villain into a heroine, as with Napoli's earlier retelling of Hansel & Gretel (The Magic Circle), but Stepmother is a fully realized and complex character.

Other characters are less well drawn than Stepmother. Xing Xing is a little bland in comparison, though her conflicting desires to conform to social norms for women and to find her own voice make her a likable heroine who, though forward thinking, is not jarringly anachronistic. The prince is appealing, but he appears only briefly and rather belatedly. Despite (or because of) this, Napoli pens a conclusion as convincingly real as it is satisfying.

It doesn't all work perfectly. The magic is incorporated with subtle ambiguity in the figure of the carp, but it seems to be almost a cop-out to have a blatantly magical slipper that is too small for bound feet (only when belonging to the wrong people) but fits unbound ones (belonging to the right person). The details of historical setting can also be rather awkwardly introduced, like when Stepmother mentions the "jiang hu lang zhong," immediately adding, "a barefoot wandering doctor." Overall, however, Cinderella fits in so well with a Chinese setting -- unsurprising, given that the oldest recorded versions of the tale are Chinese -- that it seems odd that Cinderella isn't set there more often.

Napoli rewrites a tale that traditionally takes place, once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, with an unflinching honesty that comes with its own brand of wisdom, logic and magic. Bound is no longer quite a romance, in either form or content, but it is a deeply thoughtful retelling that reads as though a slipper were finally returning to its proper owner; that this was the way it really happened.

by Jennifer Mo
8 October 2005

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