Monday, July 18, 2011

Modern Retelling of Red Riding Hood: Review of Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

“The wolf opened his wide, long jaws, rows of teeth and bloodstained tongue stretching for her. A thought locked itself in Scarlett’s mind, and she repeated it over and over until it became a chant, a prayer: I am the only one left to fight, so now I must kill you.” (page 8, Sisters Red, Jackson Pearce)

Scarlett March lives to hunt the Fenris—the werewolves that took her eye when she was defending her sister Rosie from a brutal attack. Armed with a razor-sharp hatchet and blood-red cloak, Scarlett is an expert at luring and slaying the wolves. She’s determined to protect other young girls from a grisly death, and her raging heart will not rest until every single wolf is dead.
Rosie March once felt her bond with her sister was unbreakable. Owing Scarlett her life, Rosie hunts fiercely alongside her. Now Rosie dreams of a life beyond the wolves and finds herself drawn to Silas, a young woodsman who is deadly with an ax—but loving him means betraying her sister and has the potential to destroy all they’ve worked for.
I first encountered this book when I was perusing the daily posting over at The Book Smugglers. It was on their radar and I decided to wait and see what they thought before I went out and checked it out for myself. Then they returned with this review. It seems as though a particular passage of the book outraged them:

But what I really want to tell you is: when I hit page 108 (of the ARC) I went nuts. You see, it is part of this retelling that the werewolves are predators who are after young, pretty girls. As part of their hunting routine, Rosie will dress up, put on make-up and perfume (because she usually doesn’t do that as she is a “natural beauty”). Obviously, Scarlett, being the ugly, scarred sister, just sits back to attack when Rosie has played the role of prey. So, page 108. Scarlett is outside a nightclub observing the girls in the queue to get in:
They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiralling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights – amber, ebony, cream – like shined metal, flawless and smooth. I press harder against the crumbly brick wall behind me, tugging my crimson cloak closer to my body. The scars on my shoulders show through fabric when I pull the cloak tight. Bumpy red hills in perfectly spaced lines.
The Dragonflies laugh, sweet, and bubbly, and I groan in exasperation. They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off. Look at me, see how I dance, did you notice my hair, look again, desire me, I am perfect. Stupid, stupid Dragonflies. Here I am, saving your lives, bitten and scarred and wounded for you, and you don’t even know it. I should let the Fenris have one of you.
No, I didn’t mean that. I sigh and walk to the other side of the brick wall, letting my fingers tangle in the thick ivy. It’s dark on this side, shadowed from the neon lights of the street. I breathe slowly, watching the tree limbs sway, backlit by the lights of skyscrapers. Of course I didn’t mean it. Ignorance is no reason to die. They can’t help what they are, still happily unaware inside a cave of fake shadows. They exist in a world that’s beautiful normal, where people have jobs and dreams that don’t involve a hatcher. My world is parallel universe to their – the same sights, same people, same city, yet the Fenris lurk, the evil creeps, the knowledge undeniably exists. If I hadn’t been thrown into this world, I could just as easily have been a Dragonfly.
I felt extremely uncomfortable with this passage, but as much as this is some serious twisted thinking, I can understand Scarlett feeling this way. She is an angry character, full of regret, jealousy – and being scarred and ugly does get to her (seeing as how she keeps going on and on about it). So, the text above is in keeping with this character.
Two lines down and Silas joins her as she observes him:
His eyes narrow in something between disgust and intrigue, as though he’s not certain if he likes looking at them or not. I want to comment, but I stay quiet. Somehow it feels important to wait for his reaction. Silas finally turns to look at me in the shadows.
“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? he asks pointedly.
“Can I tell you how glad I am that and Rosie aren’t like them?”
“No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.”
“Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them?”
By then, I was beyond uncomfortable, I was downright angry. The meta is thus: the girls should know better. If they knew better, they would change their behaviour and would not be attacked. This is what I read. But this is not what I should be reading.
NEVER, EVER blame the victims. The blame always, always lies with the criminal (or predator).
 To be honest, this outraged me too, at first – so much so that I forgot about going out and buying it and trying to commit it out of my mind. But you know I couldn’t leave it at that, oh no. So in May, after school ended but before the bar, I stopped off by Chapters after the gym one day and grabbed it (Actually, I exchanged it – I got two copies of “Blameless” by Gail Carriger for my birthday) and decided to read the whole thing in context – give it a chance, as it were – to see if I would agree.

And I did.

But I am no longer outraged, just a bit sad. 

See, in context, by the end – the quote makes some sort of sense. This is a story about two girls living in a society dominated by very strong, violent males – the Fenrirs (re. Werewolves). Scarlett and Rosie have lived their entire lives under the shadow of a childhood trauma that perpetuated a fear and negative reaction to all violent males – the only ones who slide past Scarlett’s anger are those she grew up with (aka, Silas), and those fatherly-figures (aka. Silas’ incapacitated father) who saved her. The girls are essentially the traditional “heroines” – they are golden hearted young girls who have been manipulated and abused by some men, while being “saved” by others – the difference being those who are “unsafe” and “safe”. 

Taken this context – and the subtext (i.e. the traditional – and modern, unfortunately – views that girls who dress a certain way “ask for it”), Scarlett and Silas’ comments are expected. They live in a world where the “unsafe” men target women who dress a certain way … 

It’s terrible, isn’t it? That we still think like this (as a society). However, I think there is some redemption through a few points:

(WARNING: Here there be Spoilers. So stop looking if you’re going to read this.)

(1)    Scarlett is kick-ass. Scarlett is a very interesting character: she is scarred but still beautiful – tough, but very vulnerable, resistant to change, but really the voice of it. She does not let Silas fight for her, she does not sit back and let him plan, or stay out of danger. She is in the center of this fight – regardless of what those same “safe” men in her life tell her. Essentially, Scarlett is a kind of rebel and a kind of conformist: in the first she is a female warrior in a fight that pitts safe men against unsafe ones; and, in the other, she is so disillusioned by her own scarring that she sees herself as more of a man than a woman, and therefore must prove herself as a warrior. While this latter interpretation makes some sense, there is a flaw in this logic: That is, Scarlett was like that at the very beginning. The quote I used right at the top of this review is what I take from this book about Scarlett – regardless of what had happened to her as a child, she would have always been a fighter. Maybe not as ornery and difficult as she was, but nevertheless, she would have been a female warrior. So I  tend towards the interpretation of Scarlett as a rebel. 

(2)    Silas’ little Problem. At first I was not so impressed with Silas: irritating boy who runs away from things because he’s too sensitive to stick around. Not exactly what I come to think of as “heroic”. He starts by fighting with Scarlett, but there’s that essense of lazy surfer dude about him that bothered me at first. Then him and Scarlett begin to butt heads on everything and I begin to like him more. But it’s not until we get to near the end (okay, let’s face it, I figured out what he was about a third of the way into the book, and spent the last parts yelling, trying to figure out why no one else understood what was going on) that Silas becomes a pinnacle from where the story turns from quasi-sexist to actually a good story: see, Silas is a safe man. And then he’s not. And that whole dynamic brings the dichotomy into light, and the girls that struggle with it – both the warrior woman and the one that loves him, the characters change: they can no longer understand the world in the same terms they did, and they cannot go back to the world as they lived it – and there, in this transformation, I can put the quote from above into context as set-up for a redemption story, as well as a love story and a journey story (even if that journey exists in only one state). 

(3)    The ending. The ending brings it all home – Rosie and Scarlett finally separate and live their own lives, and this is key to understanding the quote, I think: They decide where they want to go with their lives, and this makes them truly independent creatures from the ones at the beginning who seemed so broken. By the end, the sisters have had their trials – and Rosie’s attack demonstrated the lack of merit to the original offensive quote – she’s not a “dragonfly” but gets attacked. Hence, she didn’t dress to “ask for it”, but got it anyway. In a small and subtle way, the last quarter of the book is a complete reversal of the quote that summarizes the first two thirds of the book – it changes from alleged “victim-blaming” to the dawning of understanding.

All in all, the book was actually pretty entertaining. There were parts where I paused and wrinkled my brow and tried to figure out how this was relevant, but it was a good retelling of a very inetersting fairy tale that has haunted me for most of my life.

Actually, the beginnings of Sisters Red reminded me of the first scene in the first episode of the first season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer: In it, a boy – an “unsafe boy” who means to sexually assault a cute blonde in a preppy uniform, or so we are led to believe, is then killed when the cute blonde turns into Darla (such an awesome vampire!). 

In the same way, we have the traditional story of Red Riding Hood – a young innocent girl who meets a talking world in the woods who essentially takes advantage of her and must be saved by a good male woodcutter. And then Sisters Red turns that on its head so that by the end, the savior is Red herself, and the woodcutter is just as susceptible to being “bad” as anyone else. 

It’s a story of trusting yourself and your own abilities, and of sisterhood and the need for women to bond together. 

And for that, I recommend it. 

Jackson Pearce, the author, recently released a second book in her Fairy Tales Retold series, called "Sweetly" which is the retelling of the story of Hansel and Gretel - a traditionally very misogynist story (really, nearly all witch stories are, right?). I look forward to reading it and I hope she can redeem it like she redeemed her statement in this book. 

Again, I have a weakness for retellings - and when they are done well, I think they resonate with a generation. Will this book do that? I don't know. I don't think so. But it is a good attempt, and I enjoyed it, so go forth, readers, and discover it for yourself! 


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