‘Happily: A Personal History-with Fairy Tales’
Happily: A Personal History-with Fairy Tales
By Sabrina Orah Mark (Random House)
Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest book, Happily, a memoir (of sorts) recounted in essays, is a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be a white Jewish woman raising Black Jewish sons in the present day. Mark uses the tropes of fairy tales and fables—evil stepmothers, wolves, kings and queens as well as familiar names like Peter Pan and the Golem of Prague—to explore cultural roles and mores. “We turn to fairy tales not to escape,” she writes, “but to go deeper into a terrain we’ve inherited, the vast and muddy terrain of the human psyche.”
In these 26 essays, she writes about a wide range of topics, from her at-times difficult relationship with her stepdaughter to her own Orthodox upbringing. She discusses wigs and her sister’s cancer diagnosis in the essay “Rapunzel, Draft One Thousand.” In another, she delves into her relationships with her mother and grandmother with themes from Red Riding Hood. The book, derived from pieces Mark originally wrote for The Paris Review, is at times dream-like, scattered, breathtaking and disorienting—but then again, aren’t all good fairy tales?
The essays are set over a period of years that includes the start of the Covid pandemic. They are all infused with Jewishness, with casual references to the Talmud, Kabbalah and God, for which she uses a lowercase “g.”
She also writes about wanting to protect her sons and trying to keep them safe in a world of rising antisemitism and violent racism. “With twine, Tom Thumb’s mother ties him to a thistle while she milks the cows so the wind doesn’t carry him off,” Mark writes in “Fairy Tales and the Bodies of Black Boys,” attempting to compare her young sons’ obliviousness to the discrimination around them to the struggles of Pinocchio and Tom Thumb. “I am the mother who is trying to untie my sons from a fairy tale that doesn’t exist. A fairy tale that could carry them away. It’s the one about a war that’s being fought by children. But the children don’t even know there is a war, and the children think they’re still children.”
The essays are filled with questions, many of which are never answered or resolved. Indeed, at times the reader may yearn for more direct language. The prose, while beautiful, can feel ornate, leaving one reaching for clear explanation and simplicity. And in some essays, the fairy tale metaphor feels worn, though it is a testament to Mark’s writing that she always manages to bring the reader in again.
Through these essays, Mark probes her history and recognizes the cruelty and chaos in the world. The writings contain ugliness and beauty, with no neat and tidy ending. In her prologue, Mark writes, “Fairy tales themselves are well-trodden paths.”
This is true, but in these essays, she has also managed to find something new.
Jaime Herndon is a writer and avid reader. Her work can be found at Book Riot, Undark, Kveller, Motherly and other places.