Lara's Reviews > Zel

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli
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Mar 08, 09

bookshelves: read-ya

** spoiler alert ** Plot summary: Zel is a joyous, innocent girl on the cusp of womanhood. She has grown up on a peaceful and beautiful Swiss farm with just one person for companionship: Mother. More than anything, Zel wishes she could talk to animals and understand them. Mother has a gift of her own – a way with plants. She can manipulate them to serve her purposes, growing trees and shrinking vines, raising all sorts of vegetables and fruits. It turns out that Mother is a barren witch who traded her soul for a child when she could not bear her own.

Zel looks forward to their twice-yearly visits to the town market, where she can interact with all sorts of people. Mother looks forward to the time when Zel will have to make the choice between leaving the farm to start her own family, or staying with Mother forever. Mother could not bear it if Zel were to leave the farm, and pours her heart into making Zel happy. On their latest visit to the market, however, Zel encounters a young man, Konrad. Konrad sees Zel's sweet way with animals and her unusual manners, and is enchanted with her. When Zel calms Konrad's horse while the blacksmith removes a tick from the horse's ear, Konrad asks how he can repay her. Having no desire for money, Zel thinks of a solitary goose at the farm – she sits on a nest of rocks because she cannot have her own goslings. Zel asks for a goose egg, hoping to persuade the goose it is her own egg. Konrad is amazed at the request but takes the dark-eyed girl seriously and begins hunting for a goose egg.

As soon as Mother realizes Zel's thoughts have turned to a certain young man and the unsure way he made her feel, she acts to separate the two before they have a chance to meet again. Spiriting Zel high up into disused tower, Mother feeds Zel special foods to make her hair grow long. At first Mother reaches the tower by making a tree next to it grow and shrink, but eventually Mother can climb up by Zel's hair. Konrad, meanwhile, has been hunting for Zel for two years, obsessed with her and mystified by her disappearance. Zel, locked in her tower prison, starts to lose her mind, keeping secrets from Mother and trying to make friends with the squirrel in the tree and a pigeon that roosts above her cramped quarters. When Konrad finally finds the tower and watches Mother ascend using the golden braids, Konrad is able to use the same trick to get up, as Zel doesn't even realize it is him. When Mother discovers that Konrad has found Zel, she breaks down completely and uses the forest to transport Zel, now pregnant, far away where Konrad has almost no hope of ever finding her again. Mother throws Konrad out the window of the tower but at the last moment shrubs around the base of the tower spring up and cushion his fall, though they scratch out his eyes. Her strength gone, Mother dies. Zel is taken in by villagers who find her at the end of her long strange journey and starts a new life in a new country. Konrad resumes his search, even blind, in this love story for the ages.

Comments: Napoli has done a fantastic job of re-writing the Rapunzel fairy tale. Zel is so full of life and joy in small everyday things, it is tragic to see the way Mother tries to limit her enthusiasm. It is also distressing to read about how much Mother simply wants Zel to love her and to be happy with the quiet country life they have carved out for themselves, but by loving Zel too much she turns Zel against herself. Napoli has written the book from the three different viewpoints of Zel, Mother and Konrad. As Mother's reasoning becomes more flawed and distressed, Zel starts to lose her own mind, cooped up in the tower with only a hour long visit from Mother each day. Konrad, caught up in his obsessive quest to find the beautiful and unique Zel, changes from being a boy to emerging as a man as his search becomes more arduous.

Napoli did a great job of handling the extreme youth of Zel and Konrad. In this type of fairy tale, marriage at a younger age than is now commonly accepted was not unusual. Without remarking on explicit details, Napoli crafts a love story that will appeal to readers of many ages. I will be looking for more of Napoli's revised fairytales in the future.
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