Through a Dark Forest

On Fairy Tales as Women’s Stories and on Writing Summit Avenue

My first brush with raw and authentic fairy tales took place about seven years ago when I was teaching English to Japanese children in Munich, Germany, where I have lived since 1989.

Intending to stock up on children’s literature, I discovered the a whole section of the Munich City Library was devoted to fairy tales from different cultures. It contained literally thousands of volumes, some of them ornate and leather-bound, as beautiful to hold as they were to read. I loved the Russian fairy tales the best, for they were the most haunting and evocative for me.

The fairy tales held me in thrall and would not let me go. They got under my skin and rooted themselves in my writing and my life. I was hooked.

Fairy tales are the domain of women. In past centuries, the traditional European storytellers were women sitting at their hearths and spinning at their spinning wheels–spinning a yarn, if you will. Telling old wives’ tales.

The original fairy tales were not romantic children’s stories. Only very recently with Walt Disney have these raw and very ominous stories been reduced to little more than cute cartoons. Until the 17th century, fairy tales were adult entertainment, the way of passing a dark winter’s evening. Many older fairy tales are quite bawdy. Allocation of fairy tales to the nursery took place in the 18th century when the educated upper classes rejected the irrational and supernatural aspects of the tales in favor of a more rational and scientific world view, thus dismissing these tales as nonsense and only good for amusing young children.

Yet, as the phenomenal popularity of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves attests, fairy tales are meaningful and relevant for contemporary women seeking deep guiding archetypes and images of female strength.

These centuries-old stories bristle with wild and sometimes terrifying women who possess amazing powers. The witches and sorceresses who inhabit the dark forests of fairy tales offer a stark and startling contrast to the innocent maiden protagonists.

What I find most fascinating about fairy tales is not the young girl’s encounter with the prince, but with the witch. Baba Yaga in the Russian tradition and Frau Holle in the German tradition are both sorceresses of intimidating dimensions.

Baba Yaga eats human flesh and flies around in a cauldron. Her house dances on hen’s feet. Frau Holle lives in a house in a beautiful underground meadow and she showers young girls with either pure gold or filth, depending on how they have served her.

Both these figures are ancient archetypes of female sovereignty had their origins as pagan goddesses. Baba Yaga was once a great mother goddess of the Slavonic peoples. According to ethnographer Sonja Ruettner-Cova, Frau Holle was originally a solar goddess and a weather goddess. When she shook out her featherbed, it snowed.

Ironically Baba Yaga and Frau Holle have lived on in fairy tales even after the old myths and religions that honored them were banished, precisely because fairy tales have been dismissed as children’s stories. The tales’ deep magic lies hidden in their deceptive simplicity.

The naive young girl must go into the woods on the darkest night to face Baba Yaga. She must leap down a well to find her way to Frau Holle’s house and serve her for a year and a day. Once the young heroine encounters the sorceress, she will be completely and utterly transformed–a girl no longer but a woman with secret powers of her own.

Fairy tales are full of images of women who both challenge and empower other women.

I wove fairy tales into the fabric of my novel Summit Avenue. Spanning the years 1911-1919, the novel tells the story of Kathrin, a young German immigrant who translates fairy tales for an enigmatic older woman. The heroine is drawn into a mysterious new world as the tales assume a reality of their own, mirroring her awakening in a time of alienation and war.

The three main sections of my book are named after the three major feminine archetypes: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Each section revolves around a different fairy tale, which reverberates through that entire section.

The point of submerging three fairy tales in one novel is that I wanted Summit Avenue to be more than a coming-of-age story, more than an immigrant’s experience; I wanted this book to be an archetypal fable–what one reviewer has called a “soul-growing story.”

Many women have told me how deeply moved they were by Kathrin, a young woman from another time and culture, a dreamy young woman steeped in a rich inner life. I think this character touches readers because she can take them to deep and often dark places, the inner recesses of the psyche.

When Violet Waverly hires Kathrin to translate German fairy tales, she invites the young immigrant to work and live in her mansion on Summit Avenue. The house, of course, is a metaphor for the tales themselves.

Kathrin and Violet come from completely opposite backgrounds in terms of class, economic privilege, education and life experience, yet they are inexplicably drawn to each other.

Each woman gives the other her missing piece. A naive young woman from a peasant background, Kathrin inadvertently finds herself exploring the boundaries of intimacy and her own sexuality while having no word in her vocabulary to describe that experience. She only has the fairy tales to frame and define her sexual awakening.

Writing in this historical context, I wanted to break through our contemporary and often narrow clichés about sexuality and sexual definition. Fairy tales are set in a timeless space, another sphere, but the storyteller is inevitably shaped by the time and place in which she is living.

I started writing in Germany, in isolation from other English language writers. I had no teacher, no writers’ group in the beginning, though later I started my own. The only thing I had to draw on was my experience in another culture.

In many ways, Summit Avenue mirrors my struggles as a foreigner in Germany. I feel that this is a book only a foreigner could have written–I poured into it all my alienation, estrangement and longing for home. Living in Germany made my heroine real and allowed her voice to speak through me.

I wanted to place Kathrin in a dynamic time and place, in a setting that was exciting and a little dangerous. This is what inspired me to write about the Twin Cities in the early 20th century. The gritty milling district versus the splendid mansions of Summit Avenue, the awful gulf between the fabulously rich and the working poor, and that deeply ingrained class system made a haunting backdrop for Kathrin’s fairy tale.

Historical fiction allows me to explore facets of history that textbooks too often ignore–the hidden lives of working-class women. Historical fiction is also a way to address issues of labor, sexuality, feminism, and militarism without seeming didactic or heavy-handed.

Someone once asked me, if Summit Avenue is a fable, then what is the moral?

The culmination of my heroine’s journey is the realization that the true meaning of home, identity, and belonging goes deeper than geography and ethnicity. It is a deep inner rootedness. It is finding that house in the forest that exists inside your deepest sense.

Originally published in BookWomen – Volume 5, Number 3, February-March 2001.