Zel by Donna Jo Napoli
BIBLIO: 1996 Dutton Children’s Books/ Penguin Books , ages 12 to 15, $15.99.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
FORMAT: Middle Reader.
This is a retelling of the classic fairytale Rapunzel. The narrative switches between the three main characters Zel (Rapunzel), Konrad, and Mother (the witch). The plot starts a few day prior to Zel’s thirteenth birthday when she and Mother go to the marketplace. There Zel meets Konrad at the smithy’s when she is admiring and comforting his horse Meta. Konrad gives Zel the gift of a goose egg and they become smitten with each other. Mother, sensing that there is this new part of Zel’s life is threatened and whisks the young girl off to a hidden tower. Konrad searches for the next two years for the girl he fell in love with at first sight and Zel longs for the boy she found so charming. The plot reaches a turning point approximately fifty pages from the end of the novel as the end of the two years approaches. Konrad has finally found his mystery girl, mentally disturbed after months and months of isolation. They spend the night together and Konrad promises to return and free Rapunzel. Mother comes for her daily visit and Rapunzel reveals that she loves a young man and stands up to her mother. Mother uses her witch’s power over the plants to banish Rapunzel to a beachy region far away from their home in the Alps. Konrad comes back to find the witch and jumps and lands on thorns becoming blind. For the next three years the lovers are still separated, Rapunzel gives birth to twin girls and Konrad resumes his search while still blind. He eventually is able to travel to Rapunzel’s new home and they reunite and Rapunzel cries into his eyes, healing them.
This novel closely follows the classic, gruesome version of Rapunzel. The narrative is split into three parts, Zel’s, Konrad’s, and Mother’s. There are eight parts, four of which focus on each character and their interpretation of rejection, loneliness, obsession, and love. Napoli works very hard to create layers of reality and is skillfully subtle in some of her ideas such as puberty and physical maturity, religion, abuse, and morality. She is able to draw out some of these themes because the tale of Rapunzel is quite familiar and reinterpreting it can mean changing such details. This book would be a good suggestion for reluctant readers because of the basic plot. It is also a fair book to read individually.