This is not a simple re-telling. Rumplestiltskin serves as the barest bones for the tale Elizabeth C. Bunce builds in A Curse Dark As Gold. She picks at the nagging questions and inconsistencies that are at the heart of the disturbing fairytale – what could possess any person to give up their own child? why does Rumplestiltskin want the baby? what is so important about a name? – and finds answers. She fills in the gaps, and with what she finds in between those gaps she crafts a fully realized story.
On the death of Charlotte Miller’s father, she suddenly becomes responsible for the Stirwaters Mill. And since the Mill is the livelihood of almost every person who lives in the town of Stirwaters, being responsible for the Mill means being responsible for a lot of people. Charlotte is a very young woman, but she is resourceful, persistent, and above all, stubborn. When her sister asks whether the Mill will be closed, Charlotte’s reply is only “‘Is it Sunday?’ I asked, and when she shook her head, I gave my answer: ‘Then we do not close'” (page 6). She is single-mindedly determined to save the Mill, and the town. Charlotte is also decidedly lacking in superstition, unlike most of the townspeople in Stirwaters, who whisper about a curse on the Mill. No male heir has ever lived to inherit Stirwaters, and the Mill seems to have its own mood and desires. Charlotte’s resistance to acknowledging the Miller curse slowly crumbles in the face of insurmountable evidence as she realizes that she must confront the curse before it destroys her family and her home.
The magic in this story creeps in gradually. It is tied closely to local tradition and superstition – the corn dollies that are found in every house, the herb bundles delivered by the midwife – but the curse itself is built on the tragic history of the Mill. I wish I could talk about the curse’s history without giving away the story, but suffice to say that this is a world where actions have true consequences, both in everyday life and in the story’s magic. Bunce tells the story behind even the most reprehensible characters and their actions.
I did have one major complaint about the book: if the most unbelievable thing in a fantasy novel is the love interest, you may have a problem. Don’t get me wrong – I loved Randall. He’s sweet! He’s rich! He’s supportive of nontraditional gender roles (you know – for the 1700s)! He wanders into Charlotte’s life at the perfect time! He’s completely incapable of doing anything wrong! Yup – didn’t believe him for a second. I did, however, appreciate that their marriage is far from perfect as it strains under the weight of the many secrets Charlotte keeps from Randall. It is shown as something you have to work at – even when married to someone as ridiculously accommodating as Randall.
The book’s greatest strength is its setting. Bunce has clearly done her homework – the details of life and work at the mill are precise, and they provide a wonderful sense of time and place. I came away from the story with a more clear picture of Stirwaters than of most of the characters. And that is fitting – the Mill is as important as any character in the book, and it has its own personality and presence. Sometimes that presence is protecting, and sometimes it is malignant, but it always hangs heavily over Charlotte and her actions. Even after finishing the book, it is difficult not to feel concern for Stirwaters and its residents. Early on, Bunce gives a glimpse of the developing industrial revolution when Charlotte visits a steam-powered mill, and it is grim. This is what lingers over the people of Stirwaters, curse or no curse. It is a tribute to Bunce’s storytelling that I genuinely care whether the town can survive and thrive in the new world that is being created.
Elizabeth C. Bunce on the web. (Check out her excellent booklists!)
A Curse Dark As Gold on the web.