Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Anti-Ashenputtel: The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry

When Princess Patricia Priscilla woke on the morning of the day that was five days before her birthday, her first thoughts were not Oh, I am almost another year older, hardly a child anymore! or I wonder what fabulous gifts will be presented to me at the birthday Ball six nights from now!

No. Her thoughts were Bored, bored, bored!

But although she does not yet know it, boredom is the least of Princess Patricia's problems. Her loving but vague parents--the Queen vain and hard-of-hearing, the King absorbed only in completing his rare butterfly collection--have failed to mention that at her sixteenth birthday ball, she must choose a consort from the noble suitors there present to give the kingdom its heir.

Princess Patricia, oblivious to her upcoming fate, is driven by her boredom to order her servant Tess, chambermaid number 17, to change clothes with her so that she can find some diversion in attending the local school in disguise. Dirtying her feet and mussing her hair, the princess assumes the identity of peasant girl Pat and, costumed in rustic braids and Tess's plain homespun, joins the village children on the path to their one-room schoolhouse. With only four days to enjoy the freedom to be herself, Pat immediately falls for the joys of teaching little "norphan" Liz and for the kindness of the handsome young schoolmaster Rafe, who, newly assigned to his job and unaware of Pat's true identify, urges his star pupil to pursue a career in pedagogy.

But time marches on, and as Princess Patricia Priscilla's birthday rolls around, Tess fills her ears with the castle scuttlebutt about her potential husbands.

"As for them suitors, miss--well, we haven't talked about them suitors. But I seen them, miss, when they arrived. One is the ugliest man in the world, miss, with teeth that stick out and a huge snarl of dirty hair all ratted up. And the next one, miss, well, the next one don't do nuthin' but strut and look at hisself every minute, and his hair is sleeked back with foul-smelling oil. And the last one, miss, blimey, the last one is two stuck together, slapping at each other and spitting and using the coarsest language--"

And the suitors are all Tess says they are and worse! Duke Desmond of Dyspepsia, with his protuberant decayed teeth and his pendulous belly, resembling nothing so much as a warthog, has hordes of servants whose job is to shield him from mirrors, shiny objects, or calm bodies of water so that he never sees his own ugliness. Prince Percival of Pustula, on the other hand, has a brigade of mirror bearers so that he can admire himself 24/7, despite the fact that his oily hair sheds so much dandruff that he employs valets merely to brush off his black-clad suit continually. The last suitor, or suitors, depending on what parts of them you count, are the conjoined twins, Count Cuthbert and Count Colin the Conjoint of Coagulatia, who not only reek from the lack of an adequate bathtub, but share a fondness for scatological humor, belching, and punching and tweaking each other endlessly.

Princess Patricia Priscilla suddenly realizes that it is up to her to take matters into her own hands and escape the impossible choice that the birthday ball brings.

Luckily, in this pampered princess two-time Newbery Award-winner Lois Lowry has a heroine who is up to her role as the anti-Cinderella of this upside-down fairy tale. In her forthcoming The Birthday Ball (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) Lowry borrows plot devices liberally not only from the Cinderella motif, but also from Shakespeare's comedies of mistaken identity and Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, all the while creating a cast of original and well-realized characters. There's even a parallel romance between Tess, the perky seventeenth chambermaid, and Pulley Boy, the buff and hunky peasant lad whose job it is to hoist the dumb waiter from the kitchen to the banquet hall, not to mention subordinate denouements which give the three dismissed suitors another lease on life. It's a happy ending, even for the slightly stunned and newly be-nobled consort elect:

Sir Rafe took the hand of the princess and smiled at her. "This has been a very confusing evening, Princess.... You seem to have chosen me. Chosen me for what?"

The princess laughed. "First of all, to help me become a teacher, of course!" She took his hand and led him toward the ballroom floor. "After that, well, we'll see."

He stood there, embarrassed. "I don't know how to dance," he confessed, blushing.

"Ah!" she replied in delight, and reached out her arms to show him how to arrange his. "My first teaching assignment!"

Lowry's well-honed humor and literary skills are in full play in this well-told tale, and Jules Feiffer's minimalist caricatures are absolutely spot on in this story of the princess who finds both true loves of her life, her calling and her soul mate, at the ball. All's well that ends well, and on the fifth night of this timely tale, the ending is sure to be as you like it.

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