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The Worth of Hair by A. A. Freeman

The Worth of Hair by A. A. Freeman
4.5
Book Name: The Worth of Hair
Author: A. A. Freeman
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fairy Tale / Novella
Release Date: October 21, 2020

In their original forms, fairy stories were often bloody and almost always filled with grim suffering. The grimmest of all were not the folk tales captured by the famous brothers of that name, but rather Hans Christian Andersen’s original fables. His “Little Match Girl” isn’t rescued by a fairy godmother or industrious talking mice from the parent who beats her when she fails to sell her quota of matches. She freezes to death because she’s terrified to return home. The “Steadfast Tin Soldier” is a passive participant in a series of random adventures that end with an equally random and pointless death. “The Little Mermaid” is also a tale of pain, suffering, and unrequited love, which ends with the mermaid giving up her life to save the prince who forsook her for another woman. All of these tales have a denouement that finishes them with a dollop of hope, but by and large, Andersen’s work is not only dark but bitter.

Fortunately, A. A. Freeman has come along and taken the hunk of unsweetened, sea-salty chocolate that is “The Little Mermaid,” and whipped it into a light and delicious novella that can be devoured in an afternoon. True to its fairy tale origins, The Worth of Hair is told by an omniscient narrator, but the focus mostly stays on the Midwife, a wise and wise-cracking healer renowned for vanquishing a dragon named Chet.

“The dragon’s name was Chet. He was not a beast, nor a monster, and certainly not any of those other words you used. He was a dragon named Chet, who is now dead. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Names are important totems in this world. None of the characters are called by their names—rather they are referred to by their function, all with a capital article: The Midwife, The Prince, The Mermaid. Yet the plot turns on the Midwife’s ability to divine the true names and natures of her adversaries. Her latest adventure begins after the conclusion of Andersen’s tale, when the Midwife arrives to deliver the baby born to the Princess who the Prince married instead of the now-deceased mermaid. As the Princess labors, a specter haunts the royal family, threatening the new arrival. The Midwife must not only safely deliver the babe, but eliminate the unknown enemy. Fortunately, she’s the right woman for the job.

Freeman’s prose is right for the job as well. It’s delightfully snarky, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. For example, when the Prince’s speeding carriage flies off the crest of a dune like a cop car on a film set in San Francisco:

The Midwife had led what many would call, an interesting life, even before the whole dragon thing. So to her, the unique sensation that comes with being airborne was rather old hat and far more reassuring than speeding across the sand in a carriage not meant to leave the flat stone road.

In that wondrous yet terrifying moment of being unconnected with the universe, The Midwife had enough sense to grab onto her leather satchel before the horses and carriage alike landed back on the road. But the cruel laws of physics declared for The Midwife to continue her path and slam straight up into the ceiling, before falling back onto her seat in a heap. She stayed there, mostly hidden under her handwoven shawl, bag clutched against her chest, debating if the safety of the royal line was worth this seaside nonsense.

The Worth of Hair is the first in a series of novellas called The Midwife Fables, and I can’t wait to see which fabled aftermath she fixes next. Fairy tales were a favorite pastime of mine when I was young in the 1960s and 70s. My family owned all twelve beautifully illustrated volumes of the My Book House fairy tale collection, which I read over and over, a process that baked many of those stories deep into my mind and memory. I watched every adaptation I could too, from the 1965 TV movie Cinderella, starring Leslie Ann Warren in the title role, to the 1975 anime Little Mermaid, which, unlike the syrupy 1989 Disney version, hewed close to the original story, including the mermaid’s tragic self-sacrifice.

Nevertheless, I wish I’d reread “The Little Mermaid” before reading The Worth of Hair. It’s not that the plot isn’t self-contained—it’s perfectly understandable without reading the story that inspired it. Yet the Easter egg hunt will be lot more fun if you’ve recently read Andersen’s original (or at least reviewed a plot summary). I didn’t realize the full significance of some details until I looked up Andersen’s original in preparation for this review. Once I had, I recognized the true nature of Freeman’s work, and I name it Brilliant.

The Worth of Hair is available now in paperback and ebook! You can learn more about her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

If you like her book cover or want to know more about the making of the book, you can read our interview with the author here!

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