Imagine putting Cinderella in a blender with Hansel and Gretel, and then adding some voodoo. You will end up with something approaching Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, a retelling by Marianna Mayer of one of Russia’s most beloved folktales. There have been many retellings of this tale over the years, most often called Vasilisa the Beautiful; sadly, not many are in print at the moment. Fortunately, this one is beautifully done, with magnificent artwork by K. Y. Craft.
First, a word about Baba Yaga, who appears in many many Russian tales. Much has been written over the years about witches and wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers in folklore. Metaphorically splitting the “great mother” into a good/benevolent character and an evil/malevolent character simplifies things in tales and may help kids manage their conflicting feelings. Ambiguity and ambivalence tend to muddy the waters. That’s why Baba Yaga is a fascinating figure. She is almost always represented as a horrible, cannibalistic witch living in a house of human bones – but she still does good deeds from time to time, or takes righteous vengeance on behalf of the protagonist. In this book you will find all the duality of the “great mother” inhabiting Baba Yaga – a powerful, dangerous figure who commands powerful natural forces and sends Vasilisa home to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters with a reward. For this reason, this story (fairly lengthy and complex, and hard to summarize) is best suited to independent reading by older children who can manage the ambiguity. My 12-year-old daughter was fascinated by it.
What may be most memorable about Vasilisa is her little doll, given to her by her dying mother. The (secret) doll goes everywhere with Vasilisa, hidden in her apron. When given food and drink, it comes to life to give comfort, advice and aid to the sad and lonesome girl. This source of spiritual courage is easily recognized as Vasilisa’s dead mother, referred to obliquely as “my mother’s blessing” or “my mother’s love,” the source of her fortitude. Vasilisa does much more than Cinderella ever had to do to earn her triumph at the end, and keeping her composure around Baba Yaga, as well as performing the difficult chores set to test her, are part of that.
For kids looking for a good creepy scare this Halloween season, the artwork in this book will not disappoint. Full of Russian costumes, folkmotifs and intricate detail, the pictures offer much to examine – even if some inspire a hasty page-turn!