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Reviewed by:
  • My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
  • Kevin Goldstein (bio)
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Edited by Kate Bernheimer with Carmen Giménez Smith. Foreword by Gregory McGuire. New York: Penguin, 2010. 608 pp.

Totaling over 600 pages and 40 stories, Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith's anthology of contemporary folktales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, displays a wealth of approaches to the form: realist, magical realist, absurdist; first-, second-, and third-person singular and plural; past and present; ahistorical or temporally defined down to the minute; geographically ambiguous or as precise as a rendezvous at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. The editors give their contributors considerable latitude, refusing to rigidly define the genre, or indeed, define it at all. "When asked by some contributors what a fairy tale was," Bernheimer writes in her introduction, "I would answer: You already know. A fairy tale is a story with a fairy-tale feel, I told them. And we'd continue from there" (xxii). I can only assume that this circular definition was intended to assuage the disquiet of writers not entirely familiar with what is apparently more a feeling than a genre. The result is an inevitably uneven collection, which promises many disappointments but happily still more pleasures.

Copious as it is, the volume proves rather insular in its geographic reach. Save for several brief if eventful sojourns to Mexico, Vietnam, and Japan, the stories keep to the bounds of Europe. That is, their origins are provisionally traced back to Europe, although as Bernheimer points out, the countries listed in the table of contents by no means hold exclusive rights to them. For all intents and purposes, the editors have placed the origins of these tales firmly in the subjective experiences of the volume's contributors. The artist's subjectivity is the origin that anchors this book.

Apart from devising one of the more arresting titles on bookshelves today, the editors present a convincing argument for fairy tales as a living tradition in the twenty-first century. As a record of neither a monolithic folk nor anonymous native informants, the stories collected in this anthology are not only signed but in each case augmented by the contributor's postscript. These brief, fascinating addenda typically locate the tale within the author's autobiography; time and again writers describe reading fairy tales as children and, in turn, reading them to their children. In fact, by articulating fairy tales as experiences, the volume becomes less about the writing than the sharing of such stories. [End Page 129]

At once autobiography, literary criticism, and a window into the creative process, these postscripts also help structure a peculiar kind of communication between what are otherwise self-contained entries in an anthology. We begin to see how Hans Christian Andersen's "Wild Swans" affected Michael Cunningham and Karen Joy Fowler in remarkably different ways and, indeed, resulted in two very different variants. Yet the tale remains a common point of reference, a common experience. My Mother She Killed Me is a book that puts the lie to fairy tales as mere escapism, showing that, without our realizing it, these tales have burrowed their way into us.

Although sixteen of the tales were first printed elsewhere, several of them over a decade ago, the volume manages to give the impression of a collective effort. Despite the cacophony of styles in evidence, many writers seem to share a determination to drag the fantastic through the mud of the mundane—a reverse of the journey into a fantastical realm. Often this adds pathos and humor, as when Kevin Brockmeier's character Half of Rumpelstiltskin, working as a store mannequin, is told by his boss to shave because "nobody likes a hairy mannequin" (61), or Michael Cunningham's one-winged prince, who struggles to maneuver into subway trains and taxi cabs. Regrettably, this soon becomes a tired conceit. In Shelley Jackson's version of the "Swan Brothers," the girl without hands (ATU 706) makes an appearance and recounts her ordeal simply as a terrible, yet boring incident.

Nevertheless, a certain joy often emanates...


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pp. 129-131
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