Fairy tales are a very popular source for the plotlines of books, particularly young adult and children’s literature. And since fairy tales have female protagonists just as often as male, they can offer an opportunity to explore and re-define what it means to be a heroine. (I know a bit about this, as I’ve done Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rapunzel myself.) I haven’t done an official count, but it seems like the tale of Cinderella is one of the most frequent inspirations. We just keep wanting to revisit the down-trodden girl who transforms and escapes her oppressors.
And always there is the question – why does Cinderella put up with such treatment before the prince rescues her? Is she weak? Too passive? Too forgiving in the face of unacceptable abuse? I’m not a fan of those sort of criticisms, because in real life, victims of abuse have a myriad of reasons why they don’t just walk out. They might not be able to financially support themselves in their current state. They may have been emotionally beaten down to the point that they don’t feel capable of leaving. They may fear their abusers will follow them and do worse than they’re already doing. All of those factors could apply to a hypothetical Cinderella. Victimhood isn’t the same as weakness.
Those would be pretty intense issues for a children’s book, however. And in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, she takes an entirely different direction by creating a literal curse that forces her heroine to be obedient. Any direct command spoken to her, she must follow. She has no choice. Ironically, it wasn’t even meant to be a curse. The fairy who places the spell on her is a well-meaning idiot who thinks it will be a marvelous blessing. Obviously, it’s not.
So how does Ella deal with this? Naturally, she becomes the most willful, independent-minded girl she possibly can. If someone tells her to bring some sugar, she comes back with a tiny pinch of it. She over- or under-exaggerates every command, deliberately doing what they didn’t intend her to do, to the full extent that she’s able. Obnoxious? A bit. But it’s the only way she can feel like she has any control over her life.
When she learns that she might be able to find the fairy who cursed her, Ella decides to search for her and insist that the curse be lifted. This leads her into considerable danger, particularly when her obedience is demanded. Most people don’t know her secret, but they give unwitting commands nonetheless. She must rely upon her ingenuity and courage to escape from her various perils, even when her quest doesn’t go as expected. She also develops a romance with the kingdom’s prince, which takes quite a few interesting twists and turns before its resolution.
The main elements of the Cinderella story mostly show up toward the end of the book, when Ella’s new stepfamily learns of her curse and begin exploiting her, forcing into menial labor. It appears that going to the ball with help from her fairy godmother will be the only escape – but no, the prince can’t save her. No one can break the curse except Ella herself. And that struggles forms the climax of the book, an inner battle whose resolution is immensely satisfying.
In addition to its main character, Ella Enchanted has plenty of other entertaining features to recommend it. There are other appealing female characters like Ella’s mother, whose death is the starting point for Ella’s journey; Mandy, the apparently-ordinary cook who provides valuable support for Ella; Areida, her only friend at finishing school; and even Lucinda, the foolish fairy who eventually learns a hard lesson about seeing things from other people’s perspective. Then there’s the playful worldbuilding; the snippets of made-up languages and magical creatures and glimpses of various cultures. It’s fun to read, and very funny. If you’re not an adult who turns up your nose at children’s books, read it. And if you have children, give it to them too. Girls and boys alike will appreciate heroines like Ella.