I read Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling) when it first came out in 1995. I bought and read… no, devoured all of the collections of “modern fairy tales” when I was an undergrad those early 90s — Snow White, Blood Red, Black Thorn, White Rose, etc. Now, the series is being re-released for a new audience and I’d like to take the opportunity to review the third book in the series… in what I’m afraid is a rather mixed review.
The edition I’m reviewing is a reprint — and when I say “reprint,” that’s exactly what it is. The version of the book I received, as the new reprint, has the cover seen here and a publishing date of 1996 under Prime Books. The original mass market paperback I have was from Avon Books and released 1995 (although Barnes and Noble is showing it published in a different year and publisher than I’m looking at right now in the book itself). Amazon shows another cover for Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears also published by Prime, but listed as 2008. There are a couple more covers and ISBNs available through Amazon and B&N. Regardless of this very confusing collection of Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears iterations, one thing I can deduce from my looking and primarily from comparing the two editions in my hands, is that while there may be a multitude of covers the insides are exactly the same. Exactly! From the table of contents and the introduction straight through to the intros for each story and the very page numbering, the contents of the books are identical.
Now, I find this to be a huge disappointment. Partly because it makes the book and the editors seem a bit daft to the reader coming to the book anew. For example, the introduction to Susan Wade’s story mentions “Her first novel, Walking Rain… was recently published by Bantam” (8). Ten years ago.
The other most significant reason for my disappointment comes from the un-updated volume introduction. One of the best parts of this modern fairy tale series are the, well, scholarly essays about fairy tales and their modern versions and descendants — why the tales came into being, their history, their impact, common themes. (Well, at least until their fifth collection, Silver Birch, Blood Moon. By then the introduction becomes a short collection of trivia and recommended reading. While still very interesting, the regular reader may have become spoiled by the breadth and depth of the previous introductions.) The new release of the books have nothing new from the editors on the subject, the genre, past nor present. Not even from an additional introduction author who could have been commissioned to write a supplemental introduction providing new insight or criticism on the subject should Datlow and Windling have been too busy to update their material (which I’m sure they are. After having apparently exhausted their thoughts on the matter pretty obviously by the last installment of the series, perhaps it should also be obvious they’d have nothing new to add to reprinted versions of the series). But, it has been ten years since the series was introduced — there could certainly be new thoughts on the subject by other scholars and essayists since then as surely as there have been new authors and stories.
Which brings me to my third though admittedly least significant disappointment: no new stories. As reprints, one doesn’t expect there to be new fiction content, nor did I really. (Although new or additional introductions or prefaces aren’t that unusual for reprints. But, I think I’ve beat that horse enough. Except to say one more time that new story intros would have been highly advised at the very least.) Though, after really looking at it, the last in this series, Black Heart, Ivory Bones, did come out in only 2000. That’s not terribly long ago. Plus, Datlow and Windling have put out other related anthologies such as A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales (2000), The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest (2004) and The Coyote Road (2007). While these may be for a younger audience than the Snow White, Blood Red series, it perhaps proves that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have not abandoned the subject and new authors but have perhaps redirected their efforts in different directions. If one wants new fairy tales with a modern and possibly an adult twist, you’ll just have to turn to their Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies or Ellen Datlow’s Inferno.
Now, all that being said, let’s get back to the content of the primary book in question: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. As with the other books in the series, this one has a mix of stories that range from mediocre to heart-wrenchingly good. Certainly the likability of a story is quite subjective to the person, and the situation! For example, I recall when I first read the opening story of this anthology, Wade’s “Ruby Slippers,” I adored the sardonic and ironic twist put on the Wizard of Oz tale. But now, after reading and viewing a decade of “twists on a familiar tale,” “Ruby Slippers” seems trite and tired. Like something I would have read from undergrad creative writing class.
But this kind of story is rare; most of the stories in this collection, while certainly retellings and often twists on a theme, go far deeper and evoke greater emotion in both range and intensity. And in general, with better writing. But occasionally it’s taken too far, such as Anne Bishop’s “Match Girl.” This story manipulates the pathos in such a way as to become grotesque, in content and manipulativeness. I recall when I first read this story, when I was about 24, the horrific events that the title character encounters made me appropriately angry toward her persecutors and tormentors and rooting for her vengeance or at least her release from torment. I didn’t get the feminist ideology driving the narrative at the time, I simply enjoyed the story. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I reread this story seeing it as a thin allegory for the trials and tribulations the female sex has to endure in a negative, demeaning, abusive patriarchal society. While on the one hand I applaud and support this agenda, I have to say I enjoyed the story much less because of how thin the veil is. I was no longer reading a story, I was reading a blatant polemic. And with this new awareness, what I read as a bitter-sweet ending ten years ago, I see now as a frustratingly antagonistic and arrogant attack against the author’s own gender in general.
As the editors discuss in their wonderful introduction to the book, much of folk, fable, and fairy tale have been “rather subversive,” until the patriarchy of the Victorian Age and Disney reshaped them (3). This is an aspect of the fairy tales of the past, and the modern versions of the present, that I greatly enjoy — no one loves subversiveness more than I. (Go Marxism!) But I dislike when the rage and anger at the hegemonic ideology is mixed with blatantly ephemeral allegory that ends up, in my opinion, doing a disservice to both the narrative and the message.
Fortunately this is also rare. Most of the stories in this anthology find a balance in theme and narrative so that the story can be enjoyed for its own sake, but the subversive message is there if you care to look. A wonderful example of this balance is found in Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife.” Like many of these stories, if you’re not shedding a tear by the end of it, you’re a heartless bastard. This story, while the message of subverting gender roles and tradition and expectations of marriage is evident, the wonderful storytelling enraptures the reader in the all the best ways. It’s a story that leaves you thinking about it for days.
There’s no reason to read editions in the Snow White, Blood Red series in order, even the introductions are nicely self-contained. If you want to pick up Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears and start from there, it’s a good of place as any. Honestly, if you already have an earlier copy, there is no reason to buy the new re-release — there’s nothing new in it for you. But if you’re new to these modern fairy tales for the grown up, this is a must-read!