Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
Sometimes I make up lists in my head to answer questions I wish people would ask. Then no one ever asks me. Hence, blog!
I won’t go into the entire list of incredibly creep fairy tales I heard as a child, but I will tell you the #1 Big Kahuna of All Time, in my opinion: Bluebeard. Innocent girl marries rich man, everything goes swimmingly, he goes on a business trip and leaves her his keys with the instruction not to open one locked door, and she opens it and finds his dead former wives. Luckily, her brothers show up and rescue her. We had a picture book version of this at my elementary school. Totally kid-appropriate, right?
When I saw mention of a YA retelling of the story, I had to see how far the author pushed the envelope. As it turns out, pretty far.
Random House Children’s Books, ISBN-13: 978-0307975980, March 12, 2013
The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .
When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.
Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.
For once, the cover represents at least part of the book: Pretty girl with red hair lives in manor house (actually a transplanted abbey) and wears beautiful clothing. However, the cover doesn’t hint at the darker side of the story. Actually, the blurb barely hints at it.
Sophia has no idea when she agrees to live with her godfather that he is a widower. She believes she’ll have a female chaperone in the form of his wife. By the time she learns the truth, she’s already moved into his Southern Gothic home and fallen under the spell of its lavish trappings and the gifts he lavishes upon her. To Sophia, she’s moved into a paradisaical world where a handsome older man who starred in her childhood fantasies treat her like a queen, and she longs to show her gratitude by becoming the adventurous and playful companion he desires. However, the reader immediately sees that the situation is not right. When a 40-year-old bachelor takes an intense interest in a beautiful 17-year-old that involves spending enormous amounts of money on her and dressing her in revealing garments, he’s either Henry Higgins or a predator. When you add in the fact that he has no interest in Sophia’s three equally orphaned siblings, his interest seems all the more unsavory. Sophia has her reservations about him – after all, he owns slaves! – but after he’s spent so much money on her since her childhood and now opened his home to her, a penniless orphan, she feels she cannot refuse him anything, even if it means dressing like a harem girl at dinner. Plus, he’s so handsome, worldly, suave, and charming, how could any woman resist him? She thinks she might even be falling in love with him, and with the housekeeper’s encouraging assurance that Sophia has turned the master’s frown upside-down, she dares to believe he might return her feelings.
Before long, though, Sophia grows lonely. Her guardian is often absent and she has no one to talk to but the slaves, who maintain a wary distance. Her curiosity and a few clues in her room lead her to ferret information out of the housekeeper about her godfather’s wife. Oh, and his other wife. And the one before that…and the one before that…
This book takes on an incredibly important subject at the perfect time. While other popular series which shall remain nameless focus on the power of one special girl’s love to reform an abusive man, Nickerson’s story paints a chillingly accurate picture of the progression of domestic abuse. First, all is sunshine and lollipops, and if he has slaves and is a bit licentious, well, she can show him a better path! But then come the moods, and the jealousy. He ostracizes her off from society and her family. He has her every move shadowed. Meanwhile, the household staff and slaves increasingly look to Sophia to protect them, to soothe him in his rages. When she finally declares her intention to leave, he threatens her family. Sophia feels trapped, and she knows that she will only endanger anyone whose help she seeks because de Cressac is so powerful. Somehow, she must free herself. Perhaps the answer lies with de Cressac’s deceased wives, whose ghosts have begun to attend upon Sophia.
While many readers will enjoy this book for its Gothic atmosphere and suspenseful plot, some will also find value and even a kind of relief that an author, especially a YA author, has chosen to portray a jealous, controlling man as a villain rather than an ideal lifemate, and also to offer the heroine a more suitable love interest to illustrate the difference between dangerous obsession and a loving, respectful relationship.
I’m not saying the story is without its flaws. I found myself skimming a few passages involving dresses and other fripperies. More importantly, I take some issue with the portrayal of the slave characters, who could have stood more development. Most of them are nice, helpless people who, despite outward appearances of intelligence, need Sophia’s help to find a stop on the Underground Railroad. One is de Cressac’s evil minion. Nickerson misses the opportunity to show how life under the absolute authority of a dictator can twist the human soul. The inclusion of the slavery aspect at all felt forced and unfinished at times.
However, all in all, this retelling of a not-for-children fairy tale is spellbinding, horrifying, and worthy.