Bound by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a much more beautiful Cinderella story than the Disney one and a much less gruesome one than the original German one, even if there was still some foot destruction. First of all, this is my second fairy re-telling by Ms. Donna Jo Napoli, having read Sirena last year or the year before. Both times, she was a master at putting us in the head space of her protagonist and creating a compelling story.
Why did I find this story to be more beautiful than Disney!Cinderella? Well, because the whole fairy godmother thing is just a bit of a deus ex machina and her step-family is just comically villainous. One can’t blame Walt and his writers too much for that because complex characters are a more recent phenomenon. (At least in pop culture – I’m sure throughout modern history there were some complex protagonists and antagonists) Meanwhile, in Bound, Xing Xing’s family is much more believable – although it probably helps that her sister is her half-sister (was this the case in Disney?). Her sister has many moments of bonding with her and her more spoiled actions and words seem more a reflection of her mother’s bad parenting than an inherent evilness. While her mother is incredibly selfish (I love the late scene where she almost goes nuts trying to appease the ancestors in the face of her duplicity), she also has moments where she is truly nice to Xing Xing. She even does not forbid her from going to the equivalent of the Prince’s ball and makes her a beautiful dress. That said, she is Mother Gothel (from Tangled) levels of manipulative to both Xing Xing and her daughter. As for the godmother role, it’s couched more in the tradition of Chinese ancestor worship (see Disney’s Mulan for a semi-accurate idea). So it makes a lot more sense – it’s also never explicitly stated. It’s not like a Mushu-equivalent comes and makes her a special dress for the ball or whatever. It’s more akin to both what modern Asians do when talking about ancestors or any religious person talking about their gods, angles, or saints – they pray and things go their way and they say it was a result of their prayers. It ends up being more of a “realistic” story that way and it works better to me than the fairy godmother who (if I remember correctly) Cinderella is surprised to know exists.
Outside of that, the book is a great little trip through Ming China – the medicine man interlude is a lot of fun. The book is written for a YA audience so it has some allusions to the dangers that could befall a maiden traveling through the countryside on her own, but there isn’t any direct mention of the word rape. So it ends up being realistic, but if the kid is too young or too sheltered, it’ll go over their heads.
Final thoughts: I know that to this day there is still a preference of boys over girls, but I don’t know if people speak as plainly as they might have in the time period in which this book takes place. A lot of that stuff makes me so sad – that a whole 50% of the population should be made to suffer. Same with the foot binding. The interesting thing about that is that it seems like such a dumb thing – why would you want to make your female household members useless? It must be a sign of wealth? I’m so rich that I don’t need everyone in my house to be able to do work? At least the foot binding makes more sense (and was less of a horror movie feel) than the German version where the step-sisters cut up their feet to try and fit in Cinderella’s slipper. I also enjoyed some of the things like fatter people being smarter – that would definitely be a fun tradition to track down. Some large dude had some position of influence once, I guess?
Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot as an adult and I recommend to anyone who’d like another version of Cinderella that’s also authentic.
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