“Understanding them?” the young king asked.
“No, under-standing them. In the ancient sense of the word. Standing beneath them. Supporting them. Bearing their troubles and pains on my shoulders.”
Ah, yes. The Brothers Grimm. Some of my first, and favorite reading material. At the tender tiny age of six or seven I first began greedily reading the blood-filled books by the German fairy tale writers. I think my predilection for sad endings originates from the Grimm tales, where though some people live happily, there is still a larger ratio of unhappy denouements.
I perfectly understand the need for cleaned up versions of these stories, bedtime material for the less callous bookworms and reading encouragement for the small generations with less stomach – or perhaps it's just to assuage the fears of protective parents who fear their little darlings will grow up into murderers after being exposed to Cinderella's stepmother's gruesome end. I understand – and even under-stand, to a degree – the place that such unsullied stories hold.
But give me the gritty, unapologetic horrors of the original Grimm's tales.
A Tale Dark and Grimm does just that. Even before the first chapter is underway, the author warns that all the little children who shouldn't hear scary stories should now exit the room. Big kids, read on...this is what fairy tales used to be like. Fairy tales used to be awesome. Using six of Grimm's less-well-known stories, and interweaving them all with the same characters (twins Hansel and Gretel's troubles didn't stop with their murder of the Gingerbread Witch), Gidwitz presents a new audience with the darkest and grisliest of the Grimm tales. Frequently making interjections, the narrator reminds me of Lemony Snicket's mournful supplications to the reader to turn back, stop reading, this is too sad, too awful for you to bear. For a child with a shred of curiosity, this just urges them on to discover what could be so terrible.
The book crumbles a little in the final three chapters. I don't recognize the plot devices as anything from the brothers Grimm, though it may be drawn from them, and it gets a little weird when the kids who until now have been very clever and resourceful, pull together a very shabby plan to kill a dragon who is terrorizing the land. It ends with a happy family who have realized that though they may not always understand each other, they should always under-stand each other.