JOINT REVIEW: The Wolf and the Girl by Aster Glenn Gray
I was impressed by Briarley, Aster Glenn Gray’s debut retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and when I saw that Gray had a new, 120-page f/f retelling of Little Red Riding Hood just out, and that it was set in pre-revolutionary Russia, I thought Sirius, a lover of LGBT romances and fairy-tale retellings and a font of knowledge about Russia, would be the perfect person to review it with. Happily, she agreed. –Janine
Borrowing the blurb for a plot summary:
When a wounded wolf collapses on Masha’s doorstep, Masha nearly kills it before her grandmother convinces her that this wolf is a transformed human. Once transformed back, the wolf turned out to be Masha’s old friend Raisa, who has fallen afoul of a sorceress determined to use her magic to bring revolution to Russia.
After a brutal confrontation with the sorceress, Masha and Raisa flee to France. They develop an act that catches the eye of a film director, who casts them in a silent film adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood… which alerts the sorceress to their whereabouts in France.
Now the sorceress and her pack are coming for Raisa and Masha again. How can Raisa and Masha defeat their dark magic?
Janine: I wanted to start by asking how you felt about the voice. With Briarley, Gray’s debut novella, one of the things that struck me right off the bat was the way she captured the storytelling voice of fairy tales. “Once upon at time…” or “Once there was a…” or “A long time ago there lived a….”
The Wolf and the Girl begins with the sentence “In the spring of 1911, when the snow was still on the ground, Masha walked through the woods to her grandmother’s cottage with a round loaf of rye bread in her basket.” That phrase, “when the snow was still on the ground,” brought that fairy-tale feel to the novella and of course the girl carrying a basket to her grandmother’s house signifies that this is a Little Red Riding Hood retelling. At the same we are situated in a specific time, 1911, and the rye bread hints that the story may take place in Eastern Europe.
That’s a lot of lifting for one sentence to do, and that voice that mixed the tale-spinning with specificity made entering the story a little magical for me. So I wanted to ask if you had a similar reaction, and if it resonated with fairy tales you may have read as a child? And whether it felt genuine to you–like a familiar a place or a historical time that you have heard about, given that you have lived near Russia.
Sirius: I don’t know. I mean I was intrigued for sure, but I think I already expected a spin on fairy tale since you mentioned that the story pays homage to Red Riding Hood, so I don’t know if the sentence influenced me or not. Overall I found the voice simplistic and I don’t mean it in a bad way, I think it suited the story.
I think I was more intrigued because off the top of my head I don’t remember ever reading the story which was specifically situated in 1911. Did it resonate with the fairy tales of my childhood? I suppose to a point.
Janine: I would use the word simple rather than simplistic since simplistic has a negative connotation. But yeah, there was a simplicity to the voice. I agree that it suited the story.
And yes, situating it in 1911 was a great touch. The collision between fairy tale and a time in our actual history is one of the things I liked most. I love that pre-WWI era anyhow but I haven’t read a fairy tale set there before.
Speaking of the Little Red Riding Hood aspect specifically, what did you think of the way Gray played with the tropes and themes of that story, in regard to the roles of the wolf, the girl and the grandmother? And what did you think of them as characters?
Sirius: You mentioned earlier than the first sentence gave you a fairy tale atmosphere, right? Well for me the next paragraphs talking about Masha’s grandmother did that. I liked her, obviously found her different from fairy tale, playing way more prominent role in the story (although I guess in her own way grandmother from original story was also important), but also was amused by certain Saints she was asking for help all the time. It certainly showed me (and some other details dropped in the story) that author knows Russian history well, but unless I am misremembering the stuff I learned about those two when I was a child, not sure they had any relation to mystical stuff.
The wolf as a transformed young woman who dabbles her hand in the revolution making was obviously even more different from the version of fairy tale that I have read. I didn’t care much for her, but that’s my bias talking I fully admit that. She was fine as a character of this tale, I just really really don’t like Russian revolutionaries you know?
Masha was the least subversive character to me, she was brave and kind and did I mention brave!
Janine: I liked Masha and “Babushka” (as her grandmother was called) a lot too. There’s some mystery around whether or not Babushka is a witch or just a wise grandmother. And there was some nice humor around Babushka’s reverence toward two saints.
I liked Raisa, the girl-turned-wolf, better than you. In hindsight we know the Russian Revolution turned out horribly but back in 1911 it was less clear. And I recall being taught (though you probably know more than I do) that under the tsarist autocracy the common people in Russia were brutally oppressed. So the idea of an alternative must have held some magnetism. Raisa fell in with revolutionaries but quickly developed misgivings about their methods She was not a violent person herself. I liked her better than you but Masha, with her kindness, loyalty and courage, was my favorite too.
While I agree that Masha wasn’t subversive as we usually think of the word, she played a role in the novella’s subversion of Little Riding Hood. The themes of the original story are be obedient to authority figures, don’t trust strangers, be afraid and listen to your fear. Masha’s role in the story is one of courage rather than fear; at every point in the story where she is victorious it’s because she did not listen to her fears or to the figure of authority (in this case, a witch) and because she befriended strangers. So while she is not subversive, the story is.
Sirius: Sure, sure my dislike of Russian revolutionaries is because I deeply dislike the “product” that came out of it. But I would give Masha and Babushka way more slack if they were the ones participating in the Revolution. I know this is not the story on page, but bear with me please.
There was a good saying I once read which I don’t remember who was the author of, but it translates to English something like this – People who cry over the horrors of Russian revolution please also remember the horrors that gave birth to that revolution.
Russian serfs were slaves for centuries before it was finally abolished – like real slaves, serfdom was way way more horrible than just indentured service. It got a little easier maybe few decades (don’t quote me on the time frame) before it was abolished, but it was still HORRIBLE.
So the hatred of the Russian serfs towards landowners had deep roots and was very understandable. But in many ways Russian serfs who first and foremost wanted to own land and be left alone were also used in Russian revolution and to finally go back to the story by people like Raisa.
Scratch that, of course it is a huge simplification on my part, Raisa was not like that and we have proof that she had enough and wanted to leave and where and how they end up at the end of the story, but she tried to join people like that and that to me was a huge blow against her, which I know is unfair. It is just very deeply seated, almost subconscious dislike.
Basically not really arguing with your interpretation of Raisa, but also want to add that I didn’t think that the reason she left was organic in the story. I mean I get that author was writing fairy tale and tried to mix reality and fairy tale, but this Devil thing, while good as metaphor made me raise my head from my kindle and say huh?
Oooo I like your point about Masha not being subversive, but helping to subvert the story.
Janine: Your POV on Raisa is totally understandable. And yes, although the intersection of fairy tale and history was lovely when it comes to the girl/wolf interactions and the riffing on the original story, bringing the paranormal into the revolution is a weak point, I agree.
I liked that the section in France got away from the political and was more focused on the girls’ survival, how they would feed themselves and later how they found a home in the worlds of theater and silent cinema. The theater has historically been a milieu that is welcoming to people who may be viewed as misfits by the mainstream, and for that reason there is a history of queer participation in theater. So it seemed like the perfect place for Masha and Raisa to hide in plain sight.
What did you think of the romance itself?
Sirius: I really liked the beginning of the romance when Raisa was recovering in the house, I thought it was very sweet and had lots of potential and then to me the section in France just regressed back to the beginning and I cannot say why because it is a spoiler, but I can say that I felt like at the end they would have to almost start all over and learn about each other.
I liked what you described about them being in France, don’t get me wrong, I just felt that where romance was concerned it was wasted in a way.
Janine: I know what you mean because that was my reaction at first when the story moved to France. But very shortly afterward I saw that this choice had benefits for the story and its own rewards so I changed my mind.
What’s your grade for it, Sirius?
Sirius: It is hard to grade! I really liked the first half, but the second one to me kind of diminished what first one tried to do. I would go with C+ and I do want to check out Briarley for sure because I enjoyed the voice and was *really* impressed with the author’s knowledge of Russian history :).
Janine: Yeah, you might like Briarley better. It is just as well-researched.
I loved this one, though! It’s an A- for me.