As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

March 28, 2011

JUST ELLA by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 1999

Just EllaIn Just Ella, Margaret Peterson Haddix puts a spin on the traditional tale of the glass slippers. In her version, Ella (sans "Cinder") finds her own way to the ball (there was no fairy godmother, despite the rumors) and wins the heart of the prince. But now she is finding that life at the palace as Prince Charming's betrothed is not as great as she thought it was going to be. In fact, it's downright boring for a self-reliant and active girl to do needlework all day or listen to instructions on court etiquette from the strict and cold Madame Bisset. Worst of all, Ella is beginning to suspect that Charming's beautiful blue eyes and golden hair are attached to a head with nothing in it. Her young tutor Jed, however, talks with her about serious things that really matter. (Amazon)

Review by Natalie Gorna, Writer for the Fresno Examiner

Cinderella is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular and well known fairy tales in the literary world. However, its most famous characteristics all are magically related.  What could the story be like without any fairy godmother or magic to help out the heroine?  Moreover, what about Prince Charming?  What was his real personality, and did Cinderella really have a true love match with him, living "happily ever after" beyond the conclusion of the original narrative?  These are all logical questions that arise when analyzing the simply storyline of Cinderella—questions that I even asked myself when re-reading the original.  The puzzling features inside Cinderella are exactly what make Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix a delightful rebirth of the classic.  Forget about magic—Cinderella is completely dependent on her own wits and strength in order to survive realistic problems in a very realistic world. 

Beginning the story in media res, the author backtracks to the origins of her heroine, fifteen year-old Ella Brown.  Providing reasonable explanations and practical solutions to enigmas, Cinderella's new traits could not be more appropriate for her mentality.  Determined and strong-willed, Ella's temperament is supported by her intelligence, her passion for books, and her motivation to acquire knowledge.  However, the time frame is set after the famous ball; Ella is waiting through her engagement until she can finally marry Prince Charming (his actual name), the heir to the throne of the kingdom Fridesia.  

Having escaped the clutches of her evil stepmother and stepsisters, Ella is relieved by her changed status quo.  She is now a princess who dreams of living "happily ever after" with her prince and true love.  On the other hand, the longer Ella lives in Charming's castle, the sooner she realizes the truth.  Her newfound freedom from domination and extortion is non-existent in an environment where she is constantly supervised and told what to do or say. She also begins to doubt her romance with the prince when she discovers that they can't even have a few minutes conversation together.  All the ideals and hopes she treasured from her books and her past are only kept alive by her new friendships with a clever servant girl and her intellectual tutor, Jed.

When Ella finally understands the extent of her mistake and the restrained course her life is headed toward, she must fight her despair, her fears, her painful memories of her beloved father, and her inward confusion.  She must decide to once again take her destiny into her own hands and choose what future she wants—to either be the unhappy prisoner of an idiotic man for the rest of her life, or a scholar and the independent woman she is meant to be. 

Just Ella is truly a unique visualization of Cinderella because its author included so many ideas and themes in the same story, connecting them to create the scintillating expression of a very interesting and well developed character like Ella.  The meaningless war between Fridesia and the neighboring kingdom of Suala is another way that Haddix brings war's futility and the value of a single human life to the foreground of Just Ella together with the issues of servitude, class division, prejudice, superficiality, and independence to the foreground.

I like the way society's preoccupation with outward appearances is contrasted with Ella's analysis and commentary on how concern for inward appearances is seriously needed by people instead. Along with the many surprises and twists in the storyline, there are also many human stereotypes to be found among the story's characters, especially in the royal household of Fridesia and Ella's family.  Haddix demonstrates the step-by-step process of how a simple story could be transformed into a fantastical fairy tale without any facts.  The "history" of Cinderella, her nickname, and her family relationships are all taken into account in Just Ella in place of magic.  In fact, the author substitutes the magical elements in the plot with serious topics and discussions about marriage, love, religion, faith, and propriety.

Just Ella is an amazing novel and is certainly on my list of favorites.  Although the book contains serious content worthy of contemplation, Haddix presents her material in an informative and humorous manner.  I became thoroughly involved in Ella's personal journey, her love for literature, her resolve, and her underlying quest for finding happiness.  Ella's past, present, and future expand a thrilling adventure and stimulating first-person narrative that is greater in scope and details than its predecessor.  Comprehensive and still romantic, Just Ella is the extraordinary result of how a writer re-envisioned a know story like Cinderella with pragmatism.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: identity, relationships, death, war, marriage, prejudice, servitude

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Margaret Peterson Haddix


Anonymous said...

I just got super giddy reading this amazing review! I adore a good fairy tale retelling. I can't believe I haven't read this one! That's what this website is for, though: sharing book recommendations and swooning about our favorite books. Love it!!! Thank you, Natalie, for another fantastic review!

Natalie Gorna said...

Thanks Kim! I too am amazed how I saw this book once in a bookstore and then took years to actually read it. It's amazing, and Ella's insight into her own story always makes me laugh...she's a very sincere character. :)

Cece Girl said...

Sounds like an interesting read, and so different from her other books. Thanks!