‘Tis the Season of Rereading is a feature where we reread books and reflect on the experience, particularly because holidays are a good time to reread. Today I’m talking about my experience rereading A Curse Dark as Gold, which is an Industrial-Revolution era Rumpelstiltskin retelling.
This ravishing winner of the ALA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award is a fairy tale, spun with a mystery, woven with a family story, and shot through with romance.
Charlotte Miller has always scoffed at talk of a curse on her family’s woolen mill, which holds her beloved small town together. But after her father’s death, the bad luck piles up: departing workers, impossible debts, an overbearing uncle. Then a stranger named Jack Spinner offers a tempting proposition: He can turn straw into gold thread, for the small price of her mother’s ring. As Charlotte is drawn deeper into her bargains with Spinner-and a romance with the local banker-she must unravel the truth of the curse on the mill and save the community she’s always called home.
On my reread of this novel, my feelings have changed a bit. When I first read A Curse Dark As Gold I adored the tense story, the slick plot, the clever retelling and the historical research part. I definitely still liked it this time round, but not as much, appreciating instead the strong heroine, history and creepy magic.
When you reread a book, you really need to love the characters, or the world, or the detail of the story. You don’t read it because you’re longing to discover what happens next. I’m familiar with the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but the first time I read A Curse Dark as Gold, the fresh retelling really took me, as I didn’t quite know what would happen next. This time, I don’t think the plot was so clever. It was intriguing but predictable (bear in mind I had read this before) with any prior knowledge of the Rumplestilskin story (except for the resolution. That was new and I liked it. )
The real strength of this novel is the way it gave voices to people. The characters are, for want of a better word, lively. They walk and talk and make decisions—and you can perfectly understand why. The two antagonist characters, well, I was really angry at them. I was hissing. That’s how vivid they are. Yet at the same time, you can hear their side of the story. They have a voice. They say ‘This is why I turned out this way’ Their actions aren’t forgivable, but they’re still doing the only thing they know how.
Charlotte is really the best character though. I like how in the author’s note, Elizabeth Bunce explained how the story sprung from her desire to give the Millers Daughter a name. Charlotte is a fabulous character. She is so protective of her mill and her family, and so resilient and so vulnerable. One thing about this reread is that I wasn’t as taken by the love story. It seemed fast, though I know that’s how marriages happened two hundred years ago. Anyway, Charlotte’s fierce desire to protect the mill lead to her making a deal with a man called Jack Spinner. The emotional exchange for each deal is interesting. Charlottes transformation from a rational person to someone just willing to believe in a curse is also absorbing. The way she adjusts to Uncle Wheeler and his machinations, using her support network of Randall, Jesse, Rosie, Rachel etc. is heartening. Her love of the mill and understanding of how it protects the village are central to the plot, and excellently written.
I also adore the history supporting this story. The location is rather generic-just another village in a place that could be anywhere at the turn of the eighteenth century in Europe or the US—but it is perfectly detailed. A Curse Dark As Gold is by no means a how to manual, but the details-looms and dyeing and spinning—bring the historical period to life. Added to that, the first time I read this I didn’t really know much of the history of the industrial revolution, just that it happened. Now that I’ve studied that, the transition to machines and not people adds spark to the story ( as fierce as Charlotte is that it doesn’t happen.
The magic is also awesome. It’s very spooky, and the fact that Charlotte takes nothing for granted adds to that. There are details like corn dollies and herby rituals that make the hedge medicine come to life, and the unravelling of the curse is intriguing, as is the rationale behind it. The actual transformation of straw to gold isn’t fully explained—how could it be—but I adored the practicalities of having to sell gold thread and explain the cloth. It was a very sensible interaction between magic and the real world, reminiscent of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, though that was written afterwards.
Rereading always tells you a little bit about yourself as well as the book, and rereading A Curse Dark As Gold has shown me that historical detail and quirky magic, as well as fierce heroines, are definitely something I like. The exquisitely written book is still enjoyable, though I know what happens. Even though it does follow the story, the way it expresses the characters hidden in the woodwork make it a worthwhile read.
What are some books that you’ve reread again and again? Have you read A Curse Dark as Gold? What do you think about retellings of less popular fairytales? tell me in the comments