When the girl was alone the little man returned for a third time. He said, “What will you give me if I spin the straw this time?”
“I have nothing more that I could give you,” answered the girl.
“Then promise me, after you are queen, your first child.”
“Who knows what will happen,” thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded. In return, the little man once again spun straw into gold. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “Rumpelstiltskin”
Fairy tales deal in archetypes—the rich father, the cruel stepmother, the poor but beautiful maiden, the chivalrous prince, the mysterious stranger in the village—who all live in that geographically ambiguous “magical land far, far away.”
Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (2017), is essentially a modern fairy tale. It’s a quick, highly enjoyable read with interesting reversals and good deal of pathos. Like Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, it deals with families, especially mothers and their daughters.
But Ng challenges her fairy-tale conventions even as she relies on them. Rather than opting for the magical land far, far away, Ng places her tale in a more fraught location: Shaker Heights, a near suburb of Cleveland, Ohio on planet Earth in the nineties. As a resident of the next town over, I can tell you that Ng has captured the town with acuity that only a local could (she grew up in Shaker Heights). From her name-dropping the Lusty Wrench (an auto body shop that I have frequented) to her descriptions of the grassy lawns on Van Aken Blvd., Ng paints Shaker Heights in all its picturesque glory.
Shaker Heights provides a particularly fitting backdrop for a modern fairy tale because the town was intended to be a bit of a paradise a bit “far, far away” from the big city. According to an advertisement from 1925, Shaker Heights was a scrupulously planned “Home Sanctuary” where there were rules about what color you could paint the fence and what kinds of plants could grow in the front yard.
And then there were the nastier rules. Up until the seventies, neighborhood “covenants” (agreements among existing neighbors) determined who could move into a house in certain Shaker Heights neighborhoods. In other words, a family wishing to move into Shaker Heights had to be approved by their neighbors. This meant that for decades African-Americans and Jews were consistently excluded. These neighborhood covenants are no longer practiced, and Shaker Heights now prides itself in its diversity. But the powerful vestiges of this ugly history of personal and institutional racism still hover over Shaker Heights, as they do in many suburban cities that were created to accommodate white flight. Ng is well aware of this conflicted history, and she uses Shaker Heights as looming metaphor for the larger theme of her novel: the dangers of perceived, orderly perfection that mask truly complicated, painful human narratives.
Like her setting, Ng’s characters appear to be updated versions of our favorite fairy-tale types. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, who “rule” their community and their privileged offspring—Trip, Moody, Lexie, and Izzy—with the confidence of the well-to-do establishment. Then Mia, a nomadic artist with a mysterious past, comes to town. She lives with her luminous teenage daughter, Pearl, in one of the Richardson family’s rental properties. Pearl wins the affection of the Richardson children; Mia picks up work as the Richardson’s maid. Mrs. Richardson learns Mia’s secret; Mia knows Lexie’s. Pearl and Tripp have one of their own. On the other side of town, a destitute Chinese immigrant mother leaves her child on a doorstep; later the child is adopted by a rich, barren couple who have longed for a child, their happily ever after.
But Ng’s tale will not end so simply. Early in the novel (in a bit of authorial self-disclosure) several of the teenage protagonists are discussing a school assignment that asks them to retell a fairy tale from an alternative character’s perspective. Sixteen-year-old Lexie suggests Rumpelstiltskin: “I mean, that miller’s daughter cheated him . . . and then she reneged on their deal. Maybe she’s the villain . . . I mean, she shouldn’t have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn’t want to” (55).
Through her characters’ ever-intertwining narratives, Ng breaks down our fairy-tale assumptions by following the sorts of questions Lexie is posing to their more realistic conclusions. What if the fairy-tale village is not so innocent? What if the destitute mother sues for custody? What if Cinderella seduces the prince? What happens when one princess gets knocked up and the other one burns the house down, revealing that the queen’s perfect spun-gold life is actually just straw?
All good questions for a fairy tale, for contemporary fiction, and for people who like to read both.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.