Published: August 1, 1999
This is the story of two spinners. The first honed his craft at a stolen wheel, crippling his leg, turning a room full of straw into a glittering dress for his beloved — and losing her. The second steals moments to teach herself. Saskia is her name, and she grows up to be a master spinner. Nothing is beyond her — until she, too, must spin straw into gold. And it is then that they meet . . .
Although Spinners is a relatively short book, Napoli and Tchen offer readers a unique and well-developed interpretation of “Rumpelstiltskin.” The story is based around an imaginative interpretation of the relationship between Rumpelstiltskin and the female spinster; she is his daughter, although she does not know it. Readers might expect this relationship to soften Rumpelstiltskin’s deals with the young spinster, but Napoli and Tchen imbue him with a realistic bitterness that compels him to continue carrying out the tragedy of this tale, and helps the book retain some of the darkness of the source story. There is enough suspense to keep readers hoping, however, that he will rediscover his heart and relent.
The story, then, is as much about character as it is about putting twists on the well-worn plot. Napoli and Tchen walk a fine line, making the book a bit general and ambiguous (such as never giving some characters names), while placing a priority on developing personalities and exploring the contradictions within them. Rumpelstiltskin both loves his daughter and resents her. His daughter both loathes the king but wants to live. Characters make hard choices in Spinners, and the authors never sugarcoat that.
Mixed into the drama, however, is a plethora of knowledge about spinning, weaving, fabrics, and yarns. The authors have clearly done their research, and thus are able to portray Rumpelstiltskin and his daughter believably as expert spinners. They also use small details to demonstrate differences in their yarn creations, and thus in their personalities. As a bonus, readers come out fairly well-informed about spinning. (Random knowledge gained from books is always a perk, in my opinion.)
Yet Napoli and Tchen would have benefited from paying equal attention to detail in some other aspects of the story. For instance, the setting is entirely unclear. One operates under the assumption it occurs in some unnamed fictional world, until the final chapters, when characters suddenly make offhand references to real places. Similarly, the magic is not well-integrated. Something magical must be happening for a man to spin straw into gold, but just about every other “magical” occurrence is explained away, and the characters themselves seem reluctant to believe in anything supernatural. Finally, after carefully developing the entire retelling, Napoli and Tchen leave readers with an abrupt, and completely inexplicable ending, that is rather unsatisfying. Even an awkwardly tacked-on epilogue would have given readers some closure.
Ultimately, however, Spinners is an interesting retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” that succeeds in the most important places. It gets at the heart of the original story, and at the emotions and other forces that must have driven the characters to play out such a bitter tale. Alternately dark and light, but always thoughtful, it will appeal to readers who like their fairy tale retellings to be complicated, instead of having a straightforward happily ever after. Great for fans of Lili St. Crow and Adam Gidwitz.
Content Note: Sex
4 thoughts on “Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen”
I love retellings, and I’ve always sort of loved the story of Rumpelstiltskin, so I’ll have to check this one out! That’s interesting that they made Rumpelstiltskin Saskia’s father, and I’m sorry to hear that the ending isn’t very well done. Hmm. Well, I think I’ll add this to my TBR list but check it out at the library someday. Great review, Briana!
I’d always thought “Rumpelstiltskin” was somewhat overlooked in retellings, but I’ve been discovering more of them recently. I stumbled across this book at a library book sale.
I really did love the book right up until the ending where, well, it just ended. And rather randomly. I’m still sitting around wondering what led to authors and editor to the decision this was a fitting conclusion because, frankly, I’m baffled by it.
I’m on a Rumpelstiltskin kick lately, so I’m hoping to read this soon. I’ve loved several of Napoli’s other books, and I think it’s because she doesn’t hold back, and it sounds like that’s exactly what this delivers.
This is the first I’ve read of Napoli’s, and I really enjoyed it!