William Morrow, October 2009
Gregory Maguire is best known, perhaps, for his novel and Broadway hit, Wicked
and its sequel, Son of a Witch
. Now, he comes before us with Matchless
, "An Illumination of Hans Christian Andersen's classic 'The Little Match Girl.'" It is a jewel of a Christmas story, which I plan to read to my grandson.
However, one must keep in mind comments made by A. S. Byatt (The Children's Story
) at a recent talk at Duke University. She drew a distinction between the tales of the Brothers Grimm and those of Hans Christian Andersen. The Grimm Tales, grim though they may be, come from a tradition of folklore so the reader has a certain expectation that bad things are going to happen. As a result, little angst ensues should a character come to a bad end. Andersen, on the other hand, rewrote tales, deviating from the traditional, so when his characters come to a bad end, such as the little match girl, we are surprised and revolted. Maguire acknowledges this when he writes in a brief afterword that the little girl's "plight has come to seem too bleak for modern audiences."
Both worlds are encompassed in this four-part tale that centers on that sad girl with the matches. Frederik and his mother live on "an island so far north that it snowed from September to April." She is a seamstress to the Queen, a heavy-footed lummox who is always stepping on her hem and requiring a stitch. Despite her work for the Queen, mother and son are poor, down to their last bit of tea, and nearly out of matches. In the second section we meet the match girl who loses first one shoe then the other, which is picked up by Frederick. Freezing to death (This gives nothing away; who among us does not know the story.), she lights her supply of candles one by one. They light her way to the welcoming arms of her mother who is in Heaven. Back home, Frederik finds a key in the shoe and that leads him and his mother to the little girl's father and two baby sisters.
Maguire's twist is that all ends well. The metaphor of being "matchless" fits the story on 3 separate levels. Because they are running out of matches, Frederik and his mother look for them. The little girl dies because she loses her shoes and runs out of matches. Because of these two related actions, Frederik finds a shoe that contains a key with a name that leads him and his mother to the little girl's father.
This is a delightful little story of matchless loss and love, a story that is sure to become a Christmas tradition in many households. It was written for National Public Radio, part of a series of stories composed each year with a Christmas theme. It was designed to be read aloud, premiering Christmas Day 2008, on "All Things Considered" and read by Maguire. Maguire closes by noting, "I hope to honor the original by finding a way to return to the story a sense of the transcendent apprehended by many nineteenth-century readers, children and adults alike." This he has done marvelously.