Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn

Bridget O'Malley and her family arrive in New York City in 1880 with little more than the clothes on their backs, hoping for a better life than what they left behind in Ireland. They struggle at first, working in sweatshop conditions and living in a dismal tenement apartment. But when opportunity knocks, in the form of Bridget's position as a seamstress in the home of textile tycoon J.P. Wellington, it seems fortune will smile on them at last.

To Bridget's dismay, her imaginative father boasts she can make dresses so spectacular, they will create a sensation and bring the Wellingtons untold riches. Bridget's skills are not equal to the task, but she has an unexpected ally. Ray Stalls, a kind but enigmatic young man from her neighborhood, practically spins straw into gold, launching Bridget into a brilliant new career and the sort of fairy-tale lifestyle she only dreamed of. Until it all unravels.

Suzanne Weyn's young-adult novel, from the "Once Upon a Time" series, is an imaginative reworking of the Brothers Grimm tale, "Rumpelstiltskin" She embroiders her story with the merest hint of magic as she relates how Bridget finds all she has ever thought she wanted and loses it, only to discover riches much more precious and lasting.

The most intriguing aspect of this fairy-tale retelling was how Weyn turned Ray Stalls into a hero rather than the villain. He is the story's most sympathetic character and Bridget's true prince, although it takes her the length of the novel to realize it. Weyn incorporated elements from the original tale - straw spun into gold thread, a quest to discover Stalls's true name -in surprising ways. Bridget was a resourceful, strong-willed character, especially when Ray Stalls vanished from the narrative for a time, leaving her to her own devices.

Weyn portrayed the prejudice many immigrants had to overcome in order to succeed in the New World. She also explored the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, showing how tycoons built their wealth on the backs of poorly paid employees, and examined the beginnings of labor movements and unionizing.

The book was not without flaws. Bridget's father was the stereotypical Irishman - hot headed and full of blarney. (At least he didn't drink). The plot relied too much on coincidence, and Weyn crammed so many important occurrences into the last 60 pages that my head spun. But I was willing to overlook these problems. It's a fairy tale, after all, with an appropriately romantic and happy ending.

My grade: B+

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