Let’s talk about fairy tales: A review of The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem (2000) by Vivian Vande Velde

 The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde You probably already know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Just in case you don’t quite remember it, here are the details: A poor miller tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. But she can’t. The king then brings the daughter to the castle to spin some straw into gold. She is very highly motivated to do so since the king will kill her if she doesn’t. So, the girl is in a bit of trouble, right? Luckily, a little man drops by and offers to spin the straw into gold for the girl. First in exchange for a (gold) ring, then a (gold) necklace. Then, the girl has to spin straw one last time–if she does the king will marry her–but she’s out of gold (because Rumpelstiltskin obviously needs gold). So the little man asks for the daughter’s first born child. She says okay. Time passes and Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect but the daughter balks, so Rumpelstiltskin gives her an out–guess his name and she can keep the child. Eventually she does and the little man is royally upset and stamps a crack in the castle and explodes.

Weird story, right?

Vivian Vande Velde certainly thought so. In an attempt to better justify some of the weird bits of Rumpelstiltskin, Vande Velde came up with her short story collection called, appropriately enough, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem (2000). The book features six stories.  Questions answered include: Why would Rumpelstiltskin spin gold in exchange for less gold? Why would he want a baby? Why is the miller telling people his daughter can spin straw into gold? Why can’t anyone guess such a bizarre name? And more.

These retellings have the tone of modern fairy tales. Each story begins something like this: “Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells . . . ” creating a nice contrast between our time and that elusive time that all of the good stories happened upon. The  stories run, on average, ten pages. And every one is different–Vande Velde never covers the same ground twice.

In some versions the miller and his daughter save themselves, in others Rumpelstiltskin (yes! the bad guy!) does. Sometimes the king is a creep, sometimes he isn’t. Each story offers a slightly different take on the story by asking “what if?”

The stories feature Vande Velde’s usual ingenuity, in this case taking one of the oldest fairy tales in the book and making it her own (six times). My person favorites in the collection are “Straw into Gold,” “The Domovoi,” and “Papa Rumpelstiltskin” because Vande Velde takes the framework of the Rumpelstiltskin story and just runs with it bringing each of these stories into completely new territory. At times heartwarming, at times sad, this collection is a must read for anyone  who likes a good fairy tale (with a twist) and, of course, for anyone who is already a fan of Vivian Vande Velde.

The only difference between this collection and Vande Velde’s novels, I’m thinking particularly of A Well-Timed Enchantment which also turns the whole fairy tale tradition on its head, is that the short stories don’t have the same depth–because they’re short. This isn’t a bad thing, just if you’re new to Vande Velde’s work I’d recommend starting with one of her novels instead because they are more illustrative of her all-around awesomeness.

Anyway, anyone who enjoys seeing fairy tales turned upside down, inside out, or sideways should give The Rumpelstiltskin Problem a look today :)

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

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