The World Above by Cameron Dokey

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is one of several guest posts she has contributed to the blog.

The World AboveGoodreads: The World Above: A Retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk”
Series: Once Upon a Time

Summary: Jack and his sister Gen have never known their father – have never seen the place their ancestors called home. In fact, Gen is not quite sure she believes it even exists – and besides, she rather likes the World Below, despite the hard times facing her family with crops failing left and right. But her belief is shaken when Jack trades their family’s cow for a bunch of speckled beans and, instead of scolding him for his stupidity, her mother cries with joy. Suddenly, practical Gen has adventure thrust upon her, as she and Jack plan to take back a throne, rightfully theirs, and set foot for the first time in the land of their parents – the World Above.

Minor Spoilers

Review: My feelings about this book are complicated, to say the least, so bear with me. I enjoyed it very much, but I haven’t been able to shake a feeling of disappointment, even after having read it a couple of times now.

First off, if you couldn’t tell from the summary, this book attempts to retell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. That’s how it has been marketed too: a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I like the Once Upon a Time series – I’ve read most of the retellings in it, and when I learned of this one, I must admit I was curious. How do you retell “Jack and the Beanstalk?” All fairy tales are relatively simplistic, and far be it from me to insist that a tale be too simplistic to be able to retell – but I had never really thought of Jack’s story as one up for retelling. I think this was the first retelling of the story I’d even heard of. This interest is probably what set me up for my first disappointment. Oh, the makings of the “Jack and the Beanstalk” are certainly there – we have Jack, we have a bean stalk. We have the magical items – the goose that lays golden eggs, the ever replenishing sack of gold coins, the harp that sings – and Jack even steals [most of] these things from a giant, sort of [if being given two of the three by a giant counts as stealing]. Jack is still curious and that curiosity is at least part of the reason he goes up the beanstalk in the first place. But then we have the fact that Jack is not from the world as ‘we’ know it, he has another motivation to go up the beanstalk: to go home and overthrow a usurper, and he has a twin sister, not curious but practical, with the wits to make him successful. He is not stupid for taking the beans for the cow in this book – it is the best thing that he could have done. He befriends giants and is successful and all of this sounds like the makings of a pretty good retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” in my opinion. And yet, on this level, I find myself rather disappointed with Dokey’s work. Why? Have you yet asked yourself why a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is being reviewed during a “Robin Hood” read-along?

By the second half of the book, “Robin Hood” takes over… which is confusing to say the least. Potentially even misleading. Sure, perhaps readers should be able to see it coming — the World Above is very green, after all, and throne usurpers are a common “Robin Hood” trope – albeit usually of the throne of a king. (But perhaps we are expected to take a ducal throne in the World Above to be the same level as a kingly one in the World Below: there was no mention of a higher authority. But I digress.) We have greenness, and usurpers, and the usurper’s name is Guy! Guy de Trabant, presumably instead of Guy of Gisborne – and Gisborne is usually not the first arch nemesis people think of, when they think about “Robin Hood.” Maybe the author was just trying to be subtle. Once you get Robin Hood on the scene though, she is not subtle at all, and it makes me wonder how much Dokey was trying to create a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in the first place, given how well the background she creates for Jack and Gen lends itself to the Robin Hood tradition. When I first read it, it felt more like Dokey had hit a creative road bump in trying to retell the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story – like she had lifted a tale from the “Robin Hood” tradition, because she didn’t know where else to go or how to finish out the story she had started in an interesting way… Perhaps the story would be more successful if I had considered it a retelling of “Robin Hood” that happens to incorporate “Jack and the Beanstalk” as opposed to the other way around.

But, I mean – Robin Hood! As much as I didn’t like his story being used in this way, I must admit I greatly enjoyed the “Robin Hood” bits for the sake of their being “Robin Hood” bits. On the most basic level, he is the Robin Hood everyone knows – stealing from the rich, giving to the poor – excelling in archery and besting everyone in archery contests to save some poor fellow (read: Jack)’s life. It isn’t complicated to see who his Marian will be by the end of the story either. (A fact that makes me question even more the purpose of her addition to the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story in the first place…). And his story is changed, mostly on a basic level – no Little John here, just an older fellow named Steel – in fact, no allusions to anyone in his little band, though he does have a band at least. Dokey, on some level, seems to think the best way to change Hood’s story is to change a few names, though I believe the fellow that is second to him in archery kept his first name, from at least one of the earlier tales. Granted: she is not telling the whole story of “Robin Hood.” That was not her purpose in this book. But for someone so good at altering previously told tales, this incorporation of Robin Hood was as much a disappointment for me, as it was a pleasure. The biggest change she made was the reason for Robin’s outlawing and the way he becomes an outlaw no longer, both of which only partially made sense, largely because no time is spent really fleshing out the character of Guy de Trabant – yet he is the character who is the most dynamic over the course of the story. So I don’t really feel like this book fully works as a retelling of Robin Hood incorporating “Jack and the Beanstalk either,” though I’m sure Dokey could retell Hood’s story better if she made that the goal of one of her retellings.

Really, I feel like someone needed to ask Dokey one crucial question before she finished this book: Whose story is this? Is she trying to retell “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Robin Hood?” If she was trying to do both, I think this story would have been better off making that clear from the beginning. As it was, the two tales aren’t brought together very well. The way she tries to mesh the plots can work, I think – but her characters aren’t developed enough to make them work – especially in the “Robin Hood” storyline. And yet – I did enjoy the book, the second time just as much as I did the first – if not more, because I knew what was coming and could view it as an attempt to merge the two tales better. Maybe I am just that much of a sucker for a “Robin Hood” tale. But I do see a lot of potential in the story that Dokey tells. I just wish someone had marketed the book better, because the “surprise” Robin Hood really doesn’t work – or that someone had pushed Dokey to make it work a little better if she wanted to keep that element of surprise.

Published: 2010

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3 thoughts on “The World Above by Cameron Dokey

  1. Krysta says:

    I thought the Once Upon a Time series was getting weak toward the end and I wasn’t surprised when The World Above turned out to be the last one published. You pretty much summed up the problems in your review–Dokey doesn’t seem sure how to make a retelling original, so she decides to mash two retellings together and change a few names. And make everything just a little different. Jack isn’t alone–he has a sister! There isn’t one beanstalk–there are many! And so forth. It wasn’t well-executed and I was, frankly, rather disappointed. “Jack and the Beanstalk” isn’t as common a retelling as some and this book had a lot of potential, but, in the end, it just didn’t work out for me.

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