Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse, by Jane Yolen — A Review

Fairy tales are endless.  Various takes on fairy tales for the modern era have been written about here at City on the Moon, from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Season of Storms to Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver.  The fairy tale is one of the earliest forms of fiction and one of the few genres to truly adapt to the times.  These are tales meant to teach, to warn, and to help their audience find their ways in the world.  Fairy tales have been spoken aloud, written as short stories, filmed as movies, and transformed into poetry.  Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse follows the tradition of Geothe’s “Erlkönig” and turns a familiar fairy tales into a work of epic poetry.

This is a book of poetry, where each roughly page-long poem is a chapter in the novel.  The story follows Natasha as she runs away from an abusive home, set somewhere in modern-day Russia.  Soon, she enters a forest and lives there for a time.  While in that forest, Natasha stumbles onto the front doorstep of Baba Yaga’s house, resting from its travels.  The home that can stand on chicken feet, this is where Natasha meets one of fiction’s most famous witches.  But the Baba Yaga in Yolen’s story is not the traditional fairy tale witch.  She has adapted.  Sure, she still flies around on her mortar and pestle, cooking and eating little boys who come to her house uninvited.  But she also uses microwaves, watches television, orders from mail catalogs, and goes shopping.  She has not gone fully modern, however.  When Natasha suggests purchasing a gun instead of cursing someone into oblivion, Baba Yaga disregards the suggestion.  The message there is simple.  Some modernity is good and useful, while some new technologies should be left by the side of the road.

Finding Baba Yaga tells a complete story in less than two hundred despite, or maybe because of, its format.  When each page must tell a new chapter, things move quickly.  Natasha grows and learns more about herself with every word.  Stanzas do the work of pages.  There is an economy here which makes it very easy to read, something I would not normally say about poetry.  This is poetry meant to be read and enjoyed.  There is no awkward bending of rhymes to fit the line.  There are no ethereal asides which serve no purpose other than showing off the author’s mastery of the dictionary.  This is poetry which is meant to be read and enjoyed to its fullest extent.  The book is also separated into nine chapters, along with a prologue and a coda, divided along with the periods of Natasha’s life with Baba Yaga and, for part of the book, a new friend in the form of Vasilia.  It is also just plain fun reading Yolen’s poetry.  Each poem is written differently, with varying forms, rhyme patterns, and lengths.  At no point does it ever feel like you are reading one poem which refuses to end.  Finding Baba Yaga is the complete opposite; it begs to continue.

The myth of Baba Yaga has always fascinated me.  It has just as much to do with the visuals as it does the actual story.  Where else can you find a witch flying on a mortar and steering with the pestle?  Who else owns a house which can stand upon giant chicken legs and walk wherever you like?  She is never a pure villain, nor a force for good, in her stories.  In some, she is frightening.  In others, she offers reluctant assistance.  She has appeared in numerous forms in pop culture, including the video game Rise of the Tomb Raider, a personal favorite.  Going back to at least the 1700’s, Baba Yaga is an old and enduring story, one that, as Yolen shows deftly, is easily adaptable.  The lessons in her stories remain as true now as they did three hundred years ago.  While fairy tales are endless, Baba Yaga will always hold a special place on our fiction.  The witch who cares for those who need her help, and curses those who would take advantage of those under her charge.  While poetry may not be for everyone, Finding Baba Yaga certainly is.  Fairy tales are endless.

Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 3 days

Next on the List: Temper, by Nicky Drayden

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