Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  This has been in the works since late January, and now it’s finally getting posted.  Yay!  Today we’re looking at the first “Snow White and Rose Red” retelling of this feature.  It’s also the first retelling of this tale that I’ve ever read.  Blanca & Roja has elements of Swan Lake as well.  I’ll talk about this a little, but I’m not going to focus on it too much since it isn’t technically a fairy tale (it is my favorite ballet though).

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

“Snow White and Rose Red” is different from other tales I’ve discussed in this feature because it doesn’t have basis in any oral folklore.  The original story, called “The Ungrateful Dwarf,” was written Caroline Stahl, and the Grimms later adapted it.  They added elements such as the bear prince and the marriages at the end, and this became the best-known version of the tale.  This is the version McLemore draws off the most, but one thing she uses from Stahl’s is the family set up.  In the Grimms’ version, Snow White and Rose Red live only with their widowed mother.  In Stahl’s story, the girls are part of a large family.  McLemore takes this approach; though Blanca and Roja are the only two children in their immediate branch of the del Cisne family, both of their parents are alive and they have many aunts, uncles, and cousins.

McLemore’s sisters are set up much in the same way the Grimms’ are.  Blanca–Snow White–is the softer of the two, helping her mother around the house and doing everything possible to protect her younger sister.  Roja–Rose Red–is fierce and has a temper; instead of learning domestic tasks, her father teaches her to use her anger, fight, and ask questions.  Their differences are highlighted in their appearances; Blanca has golden hair and light skin while Roja has deep red hair and dark skin.  However, despite being so different, they are extremely close.  There is a curse on the women in the del Cisne family: there will always be two daughters, but one will always turn into a swan.  Blanca and Roja are determined to avoid this curse and both remain human.  In the Grimm tale, Snow White and Rose Red make a promise to never desert each other, and their mother comments, “Whatever one gets she shall share with the other.”  We see a version of this in the way Blanca and Roja try to put off the curse.  They try to make themselves so similar that los cisnes–the swans–won’t be able to tell them apart.  Blanca eats red rose petals and prickly leaves while Roja eats white petals and rounded leaves.  Blanca wears a red ribbon in her hair and Roja wears a white one.  The idea is that the things associated with the opposite sister will balance out their personalities, making Roja softer and Blanca sharper.

The bear prince of this book is Barclay Holt, a boy from a wealthy family.  After fighting with his cousin, Barclay goes into the woods near the girls’ house and transforms into a bear.  In the Grimm version of the fairy tale, the bear comes to the cottage door one winter night wanting to warm himself.  He befriends both girls and their mother and continues to come each evening of the winter.  In the novel, Roja finds Barclay in bear form rooting around for food near the house. She feeds him and the two form an instant connection.  Unlike in the fairy tale, Blanca has very little to do with Barclay while he is a bear.  She has her own animal companion, a cygnet who turns out to be Barclay’s best friend, Page.  Another major difference is the timing of him turning back into a human.  In the fairy tale, this does not happen until the end of the story when the bear prince kills the dwarf who transformed him and stole his treasure.  Barclay becomes a human again very early on and doesn’t live with the girls until after this transformation occurs.

As a child, I always found the marriages at the end of this fairy tale a bit disappointing for two reasons.  First, there are two sisters but only one bear prince.  They obviously can’t both marry him, despite him saying at one point, “Snow White and Rose Red, don’t beat your lover dead.”  So Snow White marries the bear prince, who they have both become close with over the winter, and Rose Red marries his brother who she has never met.  And even though it’s really common for fairy tale heroines to marry men they don’t know at all, it bothered me here because one of them does marry a man she has a strong relationship with.  My second issue was that it’s Snow White who marries the bear prince.  I always felt that it should be Rose Red because she is the more adventurous and wild of the two.  McLemore fixes both of these issues.  Though Blanca does pursue Barclay for her own reasons (more on that later), he is clearly Roja’s love interest.  The prince’s brother of the fairy tale is changed to his best friend, Page, and McLemore develops her character and her relationship with Blanca beautifully.  Page is transgender and non-binary and alternates between between he/him and she/her pronouns throughout the book. I’ll be using she/her since that’s what Blanca uses for her most of the time.  Page actually has her own subplot based on a completely different fairy tale: “The Ugly Duckling.”

The sisters of the fairy tale have an ideal relationship with no conflict between them.  Blanca and Roja, though they are close, do have the conflict of the curse.  Most in the family think Roja will be the one to turn into a swan, and both girls are very aware of this.  When los cisnes finally arrive, Blanca is told that she can save herself by getting a blue-eyed boy to fall in love with her.  When Barclay transforms back into a human, she sees he has blue eyes.  Instead of trying to win him to save herself, Blanca makes a deal with los cisnes: if she gets Barclay to fall in love with her, Roja will remain human and Blanca will turn into a swan.  However, she doesn’t tell Roja about this.  When Roja finds out about what Blanca was told and sees what’s happening, she believes Blanca has abandoned her and is trying to save herself.  As a result, she tries to make herself more like Blanca in an effort to get Barclay to fall in love with her instead.  This is where the Swan Lake aspect of the novel comes in.  In the ballet, Odette–the Swan Queen–has been transformed into a swan and the only way to break the curse is for someone to swear to love her forever.  She and Prince Siegfried fall in love, but the evil sorcerer Rothbart uses magic to make his daughter Odile–the Black Swan–appear like Odette.  At a ball, Siegfried declares his love for Odile believing she is Odette, thus dooming the real Odette to remain a swan forever.  So both girls are trying to get a declaration of love out of Siegfried, just as Blanca and Roja are both trying to get Barclay to fall in love with them.  The parallels between Odette and Odile are further drawn in the climax of the novel when both sisters transform into swans; Blanca becomes a white swan and Roja becomes a black one.

Another major difference between “Snow White and Rose Red” and Blanca & Roja is the antagonists.  The antagonist of the fairy tale is the dwarf who the girls try to help in the second half of the tale, though he doesn’t actually do much in the story.  They continually find him trapped and free him twice by cutting his beard and once by pulling him away from from an eagle, ripping his coat in the process. Instead of being grateful, he is angry and berates them.  The final time they meet him, the bear prince appears and attacks him.  The dwarf tries to convince him to eat the girls, but this does not work.  It is then revealed that the dwarf is the one who turned the prince into a bear and stole his treasure.  The main antagonists in the novel are los cisnes, which are a complete creation of McLemore’s.  The driving force behind everything that happens is Blanca and Roja trying to avoid their family’s curse.  However, I think there is a subtle equivalent of the dwarf in the form of Barclay’s cousin Liam, who acts as a secondary antagonist.  Barclay discovers some illegal things his family has done and has proof.  Liam wants to make sure this proof never gets out.  He seriously injures Barclay when they fight about it, and this leads Barclay to go to the woods and transform into a bear.  As I said, it’s very subtle and maybe not an absolutely direct comparison, but in a way Liam causes the transformation just as the dwarf causes the bear prince’s.  Barclay’s proof of his family’s activities can be viewed as the treasure the dwarf steals from the bear prince.

My Thoughts:

Everything about this book is gorgeous, including the writing and the cover, but my favorite part is the relationships.  And not just the romantic ones, but also the family relationships and the friendships.  McLemore does a beautiful job developing them and making them deep.  The major crux of the story is obviously the relationship between the sisters, and I think she does a great job portraying how siblings can be close and love each other but also feel jealous and resentful.  I also thought the friendship between Barclay and Page was wonderful.  McLemore gives it the same importance as the romantic relationships, which I really appreciate.  I think that all too often fiction portrays romantic relationships as better and of more value than friendships, and that simply isn’t true.

As I’ve said in other posts, I’m always happy to find LGBT+ fairy tale retellings.  This is actually the first book I’ve read with a major non-binary character.  I’m obviously not able to judge how accurate the representation is since I’m not trans or non-binary.  However, in her author’s note, McLemore does mention that her husband identifies as transgender and non-binary and taught her about the complexities of gender identity.  We see Page struggle with other people’s reactions to her identity and yearn for acceptance, especially from her family.  We also see how important it is to respect a person’s pronouns and to just ask when in doubt.  This is what Blanca does, and it means so much to Page.  There is also major Latinx representation, and it is own voices as McLemore is Latina. Again, her author’s note has some interesting insights into this aspect of the novel; she discusses the way Latina women are pitted against each other and the implications of the idea of “getting a blue-eyed boy,” which was actually said to her when she was young.  It’s great to see racial diversity in fairy tale retellings since it’s a genre typically based on European tales featuring white characters.  I really hope McLemore will write more retellings!

My only problem with the book is that I found it confusing at times.  This was really more of an issue toward the beginning of the book.  It features four first-person narrators, and I did sometimes have trouble keeping track of which POV I was on.  There are also some confusing jumps in time.  Something would be happening in the present, then the narrative would move on to something that occurred in the past.  Ultimately, I figured it out and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.  But I thought it would be worth mentioning since there were several occasions when I said, “Wait, what?” and had to reread.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  Since this is the first retelling I’ve read of this tale and the first book I’ve read by McLemore, there aren’t many starred titles.

Other Retellings of “Snow White and Rose Red”:

More Books by Anna-Marie McLemore:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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